It’s time to acknowledge that James Harden is the best offensive player of this generation, and despite past shortcomings, playoff disappearances, and propensity to draw fouls that are more of a mirage, Harden is unstoppable.
The Rockets guard entered Saturday averaging 33.6 points per game, and was on a tear, scoring at least 40 points in his previous five games, including 45 against the Celtics on Dec. 27.
Harden has mastered the pick-and-roll and one-on-one game, using his physicality (he’s bigger than you think) and crafty moves to draw fouls if defenders get too close. If you allow him to shoot from the 3-point line, he will demoralize defenses. He’s a 39 percent 3-point shooter, so he’s too good to leave alone.
He drives around defenders who play him to shoot the three, and uses pump fakes and flailing arms to draw fouls. Harden attempts 11 free throws per game, and he attempted 17 in the second half against the Celtics, and 27 in a win over the Grizzlies on New Year’s Eve.
Harden, 29, had his share of detractors after his flameout in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals in 2017, and reports of him partying too much during the 2012 NBA Finals when he was with the Thunder. But he has continued to work on his game and has convinced officials to call fouls, often based on contact he initiates.
“You can’t match up with James, so it doesn’t matter,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “James is a unique offensive player, which I don’t think we’ve seen the likes of.”
D’Antoni and Harden agree that it’s a tireless work ethic that has allowed the former third overall pick to develop into an offensive force. Harden always was considered a scorer, but he has developed into a supreme passer, especially on the pick-and-roll with center Clint Capela.
And because of his outside shooting prowess, blended with his strength, Harden can score pretty much at any time.
“It’s perfect for our system because we want threes and layups and foul shots, and obviously he fills that up, just the way he can get them,” D’Antoni said. “He can get a shot at any time, and it’s a good shot. The stepback three gets fouled a lot on because it’s so tricky. If they don’t foul him, then he’s going to make it. So that’s almost impossible to guard, and if you do get up there and bite at all, he’s going to the rim. He’s a great passer, getting guys involved. I don’t think anybody can figure out what he does, just because he does it so well.”
Harden is known for his beard and stylish dressing habits, which may have overshadowed the improvement he’s made over the past few years.
“He comes in and does extra work,” D’Antoni said. “He knew he had to take his body to one more level up. He had to get into a better rhythm. He’s been playing a lot of one-on-one. He’s been doing a lot of extra work in the weight room. He’s been putting his time in. It’s paying dividends.”
Harden’s latest highlight was a near-impossible 3-point shot in the final seconds to beat the Warriors on Thursday.
“It’s the work you put in. If you don’t put the work in, you won’t get the results,” Harden said. “So those moves that I was doing on the court, I was doing yesterday in practice, and after practice after everybody left. So you take those shots, you’re confident in those shots, and those shots will go in. Sometimes they might not go in. But mostly they’ll go in and so you have to keep going and keep working.”
The Rockets entered the season as the biggest threat to unseat the Warriors in the Western Conference, but because of injuries, the free agent loss of Trevor Ariza, and inconsistent play from veterans, including Harden, they started 11-14. They then won 11 of their next 12.
“The only thing I know with us is the other teams are a lot better this year,” D’Antoni said. “You don’t have an easy game in the West, I don’t care where you go. And the East has gotten a lot better, and I think teams are adjusting to our style of play, so we have to figure out other things. Last year we were hunting people. Nobody thought we were the best and now people are hunting us.
“I don’t think it’s anything that we can’t overcome, but we put ourselves in a little bit of a hole with injuries and suspensions. But it’s not even halfway through the season yet. They don’t give out the trophy in December. They give it out in June, we’ll keep working toward that.”
Nowitzki still enjoying himself
The Mavericks came to TD Garden on Friday night, and it’s uncertain whether it was the final game in Boston for all-time great Dirk Nowitzki, who is in his 21st season and obviously on the back end of his career. Nowitzki hasn’t announced whether this will be his final season, but it definitely could be. And if it is, it will be sad to see the departure of the original stretch four.
“The knowledge from the fans, they’ve seen a lot of great basketball for a long time,” Nowitzki said of Boston. “Just a great sports town and it’s always fun competing here, great crowds against good teams. There’s not really one special moment or a special game that stands out, but it’s a fun atmosphere to play in when you’re a competitor.”
Nowitzki started all 77 games he appeared in last season and averaged 12 points on 45.6 percent shooting as a complement to Harrison Barnes and Dennis Smith Jr. Ankle surgery has hampered Nowitzki this season, and he had played in just nine games entering Friday, averaging 4.6 points.
This Mavericks team, however, now features rookie sensation Luka Doncic, considered the heir apparent to Nowitzki. The two haven’t played together much, but seeing the 19-year-old swingman dominate has motivated Nowitzki to continue playing.
“I still love competing, still love helping the guys when I can, just being out there, being with the fellas, going through the daily grind, preparing, all that stuff is still fun,” Nowitzki said. “Trying to take the enjoyment out of it, I’ll never know if this is my last go-around. I’m trying to enjoy the team meetings, the team-bonding stuff, and the locker room camaraderie. I’m trying to take as much enjoyment because I know I’m going to miss it one day.”
Nowitzki, who will turn 41 in June, has been amazingly durable throughout his career. He was playing 37-38 minutes per game during his prime, but that has been reduced, and he said he has paid extra attention to his conditioning.
“It’s less pounding on the court, but all the stuff you need to do around it, the massages, the stretching, the weightlifting, the extra conditioning, so at the end of the day you’re almost in the gym longer than back in the day,” he said. “Back in the day, you didn’t even stretch. You got back on the court and you shot for a little bit and you went right into the game. Now you get here three hours before and do all sorts of weird exercises to get going and get halfway loose. So that’s sometimes frustrating and challenging, but that’s part of it.”
When Nowitzki entered the NBA in 1998, the power forward position was still dominated by the likes of Karl Malone and Charles Barkley, burly men who barreled to the basket like freight trains and took years to develop a midrange game.
Twenty years later, if a power forward can’t stretch the floor, he doesn’t get on the floor. Nowitzki revolutionized the position.
“I came in at a great time when the league was starting to change,” he said. “When I got in, there was still a lot of one-on-one basketball, a lot of pounding, two bigs usually and no [power forwards] could really shoot that much. The game was changing. They were putting the zone in, they were getting rid of the hand-check. The league was going through a noticeable change to get away from ’90s basketball, where physical guys and weightlifting was helping on the basketball court.
“The league went away from that. It’s more movement. Everybody can shoot, pick-and-roll, it’s five guys together. That’s more how I think basketball is supposed to be played. So it’s been incredible to watch NBA basketball the last 20 years.”
Doncic is the future of the NBA, a 6-foot-7 inch ballhandler, facilitator, and scorer. He is playing with the confidence and swagger of a rookie, and because he came straight to the NBA from Europe (Slovenia) like Nowitzki, there are natural comparisons.
“He’s been fun to watch, but nobody takes him under his wing,” Nowitzki said. “He’s a confident young kid. He believes in himself. He’s a millennial, obviously. Their swag’s a little different than when we got into the league. He felt from Day One he’s going to do this, he belongs here, and he’s been showing that. He’s got a great all-around package for a young player, whether it’s the shot, whether it’s the floater, reading the pick-and-roll, he can post up already. I’ve got to say I’ve never seen this for a 19-year-old as versatile as him.
“He’s been playing consistent ball for us and he’s a highlight reel waiting to happen. He’s got a lot of stuff in his arsenal and he’s been fun to watch.”
With Barnes, Smith, Doncic, and Jalen Brunson, the Mavericks are loading themselves to be contenders in the Western Conference after some lean years. But those lean years allowed Dallas to draft Smith and Doncic in consecutive years.
“Obviously, we’ve been through some tough years the last couple, a lot after the championship , but the last couple were extremely tough,” Nowitzki said. “We feel like we’ve got some great young guys. Those are some guys we can build around, they are 20 years old barely and with Harrison we have some cornerstones we feel like we can build on and putting this franchise in the right direction.”
Morris merits consideration
It’s highly unlikely Marcus Morris will become one of the league’s 24 All-Stars when the teams are named later this month, but he has earned a great deal of respect with his play this season and his emergence as a team leader with the Celtics.
Morris is averaging career highs in scoring, rebounding, shooting percentage, 3-point shooting percentage, and free throw percentage. He has been the mainstay and has flourished since entering the starting lineup.
What’s more, his offensive rating is 127 (points per 100 possessions) in his 17 games as a starter, meaning the offense is substantially better with him. All-Star consideration is probably out of the question considering the Celtics’ struggles and the depth of NBA talent, but Morris deserves to be in Charlotte for the 3-point contest (13th in the NBA at 43.5 percent) and deserves regard as one of the league’s better swingmen as he enters free agency.
“The team success depends on a lot of stuff,” he said. “That’s my main focus is trying to win games for this team and helping and staying positive. If I’m an All-Star, I’m an All-Star. If not, it’s still a bigger goal ahead. I’m just happy to be able to be consistent and be able to play this high level I’m playing at and helping my team.”
Two things have made Morris a player on the cusp of All-Star consideration. He has become a better 2-point shooter as well as 3-point shooter, meaning he’s deadly from midrange. Morris is shooting a career-best 55.3 percent on 2-pointers and he’s converted a whopping 79 percent of his layups and dunks.
Morris is also shooting a career-high 48.8 percent on shots from 3 to 10 feet. Being so efficient around the basket has allowed Morris to become more efficient from the 3-point line.
“Coming into the season, we all knew that we’ve got guys that can penetrate, that can break down the defender and suck the defense in,” he said. “Being a great 3-point shooter would be very beneficial for the team, and that’s the biggest thing, just spraying it to the spots and it opens up the game because now guys have to run me off [the 3-point line], and the difference between me and just a normal spacing [power forward] is I can put the ball down, find guys, pass it, get to the rim, finish at the rim. That’s the difference between a spacing [power forward] and versatile [power forward] like myself.”
Morris is likely headed elsewhere this summer because he is going to demand a hefty raise from the $5.3 million he’s earning. He has gained the respect of those in the Celtics organization, especially coach Brad Stevens.
“Morris makes huge shots for us and has all year,” Stevens said. “And I think our whole team is alert to that. As Kyrie [Irving] is getting doubled more and teams have to decide what they’re going to do with a [power forward-guard] pick-and-roll or an action that involves those two, the minute they overcommit, [Irving] is looking for Marcus.
“I never get into the All-Star stuff in terms of number of people because I don’t know exactly who he would be competing against, but he is playing at an All-Star level from our standpoint, for sure. He’s been great and the best part about it is he’s just doing what he does, it’s not anything more than a guy to me that’s a really good player that’s very comfortable in his role.”
The Suns waived center Eric Moreland this past week, and perhaps under normal circumstances he could be a Celtics target. Moreland is an athletic big who can protect the rim and block shots, a player the Celtics could use with Aron Baynes out for a few more weeks with a fractured left hand and Robert Williams recovering from a strained groin. What’s been evident over the past few weeks is Daniel Theis has struggled guarding physical centers, leaving Al Horford to try to provide resistance without much backup. Saturday was the first day teams could sign players to 10-day contracts, but the Celtics don’t have a roster spot open and are still waiting for the NBA to make a decision on Jabari Bird’s status before they waive the former second-round pick. Bird’s next scheduled court date is Jan. 30, meaning the Celtics could have to wait another month minimum before opening up a roster spot. Privately, the club does not want to just waive Bird, paying him his guaranteed salary after some domestic violence allegations. Meanwhile, the Celtics still have a two-way contract roster spot remaining and are being patient with that signing. Former first-round pick Archie Goodwin, who has played with the Suns and Nets, has returned from China and joined G-League Maine. Goodwin, a 6-5 swingman, could be a candidate for that two-way slot. He finished with 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 6 assists in his Maine debut Thursday . . . There is a growing campaign for former NBA player and head coach Earl Watson to become a strong candidate to coach at his alma mater, UCLA. Watson was fired three games into the 2017-18 season by the Suns and has maintained a low profile since, but he has been active in helping UCLA players, and the school needs to score with this hire after Steve Alford was fired after four consecutive losses, including a home loss to Liberty. Watson is known as an astute coach who perhaps was given too much too soon in Phoenix, an organization that has proven to be dysfunctional. That has helped Watson’s reputation and he is likely to be given another chance to coach soon. Watson also has run his own AAU team in recent years and has enough connections in Southern California to be a solid recruiter. It would be a good hire for UCLA.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.