Sports

GARY WASHBURN I SUNDAY BASKETBALL NOTES

James Harden, Josh Smith find comfort zone in Houston

Houston’s Josh Smith (left) and James Harden are settling into a groove.
Justin Ford/USA Today Sports
Houston’s Josh Smith (left) and James Harden are settling into a groove.

Unlike a handful of selections made by head coaches last week, there is no question that the Houston Rockets’ JamesHarden is an NBA All-Star. Yet his prowess as anything beyond a premier scorer has been questioned.

Harden didn’t play much defense in his first few years in the league. Furthermore, he didn’t even try at times, allowing his man to drive past him with little resistance, appearing afraid of the contact and exertion. Harden has been lauded as a prolific scorer and frontman in Houston, making Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti regret dealing him for prospects who never panned out. But Harden has been criticized for his lack of a complete game.

That has changed this season. While Harden will likely never be known for his defensive rating, it has dropped to 101 (points allowed per 100 possessions with him on the floor) from 107 last season. All his critics wanted was to see effort, and that has been the case.

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Why has it taken so long for Harden to embrace the unglamorous side of basketball? Because being the primary scorer occupied most of his concentration last season.

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“Just locking in,” he said. “I think the first two years [in Houston] I was kind of getting adjusted to that lead role and scoring the basketball at a high level. Now I’m comfortable with it, I’ve just got to lock in and focus on what I’m doing.”

Coach Kevin McHale’s Rockets have had to place more of an emphasis on defense to keep up in the Western Conference, especially after Houston was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs last season by Portland.

“Defensively, it was something he had to do,” McHale said of Harden’s improvement. “He’s just gotten better and we’ve changed up some schemes a little bit and tried to be more aggressive. He’s got good hands. He’s just getting better, as all good players do. You don’t come into the league as a finished product. It takes a long time to get there.”

Harden is so productive offensively, especially getting to the free throw line — 9.0 attempts per game — that McHale has been patient with his overall development. And without a top point guard, Harden also has accepted some of the ballhandling responsibilities.

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“I think being in Oklahoma City really helped him but he was the third option,” McHale said. “He comes to us and he’s trying to figure out how to be a No. 1 option, play with your team, get everybody involved. On our team, he does most of the playmaking, too. We ask him to do a lot, probably too much. I wish we had more guys to make more plays to alleviate some pressure.”

Harden leads the NBA in scoring at 27.0 points per game because of his ability to draw fouls and the craftiness of his dribble drives. It’s difficult to get a clean block and he is physical enough to draw contact. After a rough 2012 NBA Finals with the Thunder (12.4 ppg, 37.5 percent shooting), Harden has turned himself into a nearly unstoppable force in Houston.

“He knows how to draw fouls. In our league the rules are set up that you really can’t touch guys in the perimeter, and James is playing downhill a lot,” McHale said. “He’s very strong. He’s got really strong hands and he keeps them in front of him and you go and try to take it from him, and it’s very tempting, and everybody reaches in and grabs his arm and he shoots free throws. Knowing how to get fouled is an art and it’s really a hard art to teach.”

The Rockets’ addition of Josh Smith has shifted some of the ballhandling responsibilities away from Harden. Smith was dumped in Detroit, with the organization owing him $26 million. The Pistons began winning in his absence, hurting his already questionable reputation.

Smith was tabbed as one of the league’s future stars with the Atlanta Hawks nearly a decade ago, when he was a physical freak and a staunch defender. But those days have passed and his tenure in Detroit was regrettable. The divorce was uplifting for both sides.

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“Everything’s going good, feeling more and more comfortable in my role and we’re playing with a lot of confidence and guys are playing together,” said Smith. “ I’ve got to go out and just play. I’m with the Rockets now, and I’m extremely excited to be in this position. I’m trying to make the most of my opportunity here instead of always answering questions about the Pistons.”

In 20 games, Smith is averaging 10.9 points and 5.4 rebounds and has thrived in a reserve role after McHale tried inserting him into the starting lineup. At this stage of his career, Smith, who entered the NBA in 2004 directly from Oak Hill Academy, is better suited for a specific role and fewer minutes.

“He’s helped us a lot. He’s a really good playmaker,” said McHale. “It’s his playmaking more than his scoring that has been really valuable. He’s been able to find people. He’s a good passer, a very willing passer. His ability to break people down and find open guys has helped us. He’s been fine.”

McHale said he did not prejudge Smith or call around the league for opinions. Their relationship began the day Smith arrived on Dec. 23.

“The minute I start talking to him, I form my own opinion,” McHale said. “I don’t listen to anybody else. I never have. I’m friends with a lot of people that people don’t like. I deal with people how they deal with me. If he had a problem with anybody else, it didn’t bother me. He’s been great here.”

Smith considers himself misunderstood.

“Maybe because I really don’t talk as much as people want me to or I’m not a social media junkie,” Smith said. “I kind of stay to myself and stay reserved to regular things in life like family and concerning myself with the people I love and surround myself with.”

Said Harden, “He’s done a great job. He’s been a leader. Obviously he has a different role and that’s coming off the bench. He’s very vocal. He’s playing well. All he wants to do is win, everybody on this team has that same mind-set. It kind of makes it easier for each other.”

SEASON TO FORGET

Shaw’s days could be numbered in Denver

The All-Star break is nearing and coaching hot seats are beginning to develop. Perhaps the most scrutinized coach is Denver’s Brian Shaw, who could have been a Celtics candidate after Doc Rivers resigned 18 months ago but instead took the Nuggets job.

The Nuggets are struggling because they lack a superstar and many of their players have the same skills. Management wanted to compile a deep roster with athletic players and size, but that plan has failed miserably.

Before the Nuggets took on the Celtics on Jan. 23, Shaw was forced to discuss point guard Ty Lawson’s driving under the influence charge. Lawson was held out of the Nuggets’ 100-99 loss to Boston. Denver has lost eight of its last nine games and was embarrassed in a nationally televised loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, with Shaw challenging his players’ desire.

That was after Lawson was stopped by Denver police hours after appearing at a team-sponsored event, adding more fuel to the presumption that Shaw has lost control of the team.

“You have to deal with a lot of things as a head coach in this league,” said Shaw. “On a lot of different subjects and a range of different things, things happen, and it comes with the territory.”

Shaw said he couldn’t mandate that his players use car services or avoid drinking or hanging out at nightclubs, but he also has eliminated morning shootaround to allow his players to get more rest. An unintended consequence may have been giving them more time for night life.

“You use common sense,” Shaw said. “These are young men, they’re grown men. You tell them just like you would tell your own children, when they’re of age, to be responsible. I look at it as no different if you’re an airline pilot, a truck driver, a doctor that has to do surgery the next day — you can still go out and you can still have fun but you have to know what’s responsible. So that’s no different than any other profession. I wouldn’t tell anybody any different than that.

“Whether we like it or not, we are family for each other, everybody in that locker room, so all the things that come with that, you have to take it just like you would with your own family.”

Asked if the Nuggets have a ride service for players who may be impaired, Shaw said, “I slept in a Holiday Inn last night but I’m only a basketball coach. That would be something you would have to take up with the team lawyers and front office.”

Shaw was considered a players’ coach when he arrived in Denver after years forming bonds as an assistant coach with the Lakers and Pacers. But he has not been presented with a competitive roster for the Western Conference, and the trade of Timofey Mozgov didn’t help. Shaw, though, is pleased with Jameer Nelson, who was acquired from the Celtics for NateRobinson.

Nelson, who in nine games is averaging 10 points and 4.8 rebounds in 22 minutes, has been a blessing for Shaw because of his leadership. The fact that Nelson has assumed a leadership role so quickly after arriving in Denver is a testament to the team’s lack of direction.

“He’s been beyond great,” Shaw said. “He’s a natural leader. And he’s probably been more vocal than anybody in the year and a half that I’ve been here in terms of giving his understanding of the game and directing traffic out there on the floor. That is something we sorely needed. He’s been a godsend as far as I’m concerned in what he means to this team and especially what we’re trying to accomplish.”

One major factor in the Nuggets’ lack of progress is the injury woes of center JaVale McGee, who just returned to the lineup but has played just 20 out of a possible 139 games in the last 1½ seasons because of a stress fracture in his left leg. McGee was supposed to be a key to the Nuggets’ resurgence after showing signs of becoming a capable center three seasons ago with Washington.

McGee played Thursday against Memphis after missing a month with soreness and still looked uncomfortable. McGee’s health could be critical to whether Shaw is the long-term coach.

“Obviously, his rim-protecting and shot-blocking ability is a plus,” said Shaw. “It’s going to take him a while to get into game shape, but he’s done everything we’ve asked with his rehab and therapy — but that’s a different type of shape.”

ETC.

Thibodeau deals with ups and downs of Bulls

Two days after snapping the Warriors’ 19-game home winning streak, the Chicago Bulls went out and lost to the Lakers in double overtime Thursday. The Lakers were without Kobe Bryant and Nick Young. It was a disappointing loss for the Bulls and the latest of many to inferior teams such as Orlando, Indiana, Sacramento, Denver, Brooklyn, Utah, and the Celtics.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was asked to explain the inconsistency. “You can look at it a number of different ways,” he said. “When you look at a so-called sub.-500 team, if you really look at them and you study what’s going on with them, often times you see there’s injury, there’s trade, maybe there was a heavy road schedule. All the teams in this league are very talented. You can’t get here without great talent. There’s not a big difference between 1 and 30.

“Often times these games come down to one or two possessions. Everyone in the league is capable of beating you and you have to understand that and you can never let your guard down. That’s why the approach that you have to have is to be mentally tough when you go through adversity. And the teams that do that the best are usually the teams that are the most successful.”

Thibodeau has been dealing with a plethora of injuries, murmurs about his job status, and wild inconsistency from his roster. He is not the most patient man, and he’s dealing with Derrick Rose, who has yet to return to form after missing nearly two years with knee injuries, and the lingering knee problems of center Joakim Noah.

“Where I see my job is to tell them the truth each and every day,” Thibodeau said. “And to be consistent so they can rely on that. I want to be objective when we’re not doing things well, to point out we’re not doing this to what our standards are, we need to correct this. But also not to overreact, and I also don’t want to underreact. You look at where you are and your circumstances and you try to figure out what do you have to prioritize to correct things. We have to find a way to win with whomever we have available.

“And that’s one of the things this team has done well the last three years. We’ve been shorthanded for basically three years. We’re more than capable of doing it. You go through a tough period and you have to be mentally tough.”

Layups

After a fan outside the Celtics’ locker room in Utah met rookie James Young and said he looked like the late rapper Tupac Shakur, there has been a Twitter craze to nickname Young — whose moniker is either “rook” or “JY” — “3Pac.” Young has been made aware of the Twitter campaign and offered his thoughts. “I don’t think I look like Tupac at all,” Young said. “I got that a lot this past year, I don’t know where that comes from. If they like [the nickname], I guess, but I don’t think I look like him.” . . . The NBA Development League is an option for disposed college players, and there were two intriguing players dismissed by college programs last week who could play in that league and then make themselves available for the 2015 NBA Draft. One is ex-Washington center Robert Upshaw, a 7-foot rim protector who led the nation in blocked shots and broke the Huskies’ record for blocks in a season in just 16 games. He was dismissed from the program by coach Lorenzo Romar for reportedly failing a drug test, an issue that followed him from Fresno State. Upshaw is already creeping up draft boards and a positive, trouble-free stint in the NBADL could lead to a first-round selection. Rasheed Sulaimon was also kicked off his team at Duke but the guard is not the NBA prospect Upshaw is. Sulaimon is a junior and transferring would mean he would have just one year of college eligibility left. P.J. Hairston was suspended for the season last year at North Carolina and signed with the NBADL’s Texas Legends. He parlayed that experience into becoming a first-round pick. Glen RiceJr. was dismissed from the Georgia Tech program two years ago and was a second-round pick in 2013. Upshaw would likely be a first-round pick even if he did not play in the NBADL, but his off-court issues could scare some teams — especially considering the troubles of players such as Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders, who is currently serving a 10-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy . . . The NBADL suspended Memphis’s Jarnell Stokes and free agent Kalin Lucas for fighting during a game on Wednesday. This is a story because they are teammates with the Iowa Energy and the fight occurred on the bench during the game. Apparently, Lucas chided Stokes for not getting back on defense and the two had an exchange, prompting Lucas to throw water on Stokes, who then punched Lucas. Lucas weighs 194 pounds, while Stokes is a stocky 270.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.