LAS VEGAS — James Harden was so close to toppling the champs he could taste it. That was before the Houston Rockets, the team specially constructed to beat the Warriors, blew a 15-point lead in Game 7. That was before they missed 27 straight shots during an epic cold streak.
Someone here asked Harden how long it took him to get over the Rockets loss in the Western Conference Finals. But it was a trick question.
“It’s on my mind every day,” Harden said. “Game 6, Game 7. That’s what drives me every day.”
While the MVP hasn’t forgotten, Houston’s days as the Warriors’ main threat are starting to feel like a distant memory. The reigning NBA champions raised the bar this off-season by adding All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, who should be healthy by playoff time. The Rockets, meanwhile, lost two key role players to free agency, Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute.
“It doesn’t change anything,” Harden said during the two-day Team USA mini-camp, which wrapped up Friday at UNLV. “We already know what the Warriors can bring. Obviously, DeMarcus Cousins is very skilled and talented. But they’re still the Warriors. They’ve won three out of the past four championships.
“We’re right there. Last year we showed we were right there. We’ll be right there this year as well.”
Ariza, who led the NBA in steal-to-turnover ratio (1.88), signed a one-year, $15 million deal with the Phoenix Suns. Mbah a Moute, a key reserve, got $4.6 million from the Los Angeles Clippers. Both helped fuel Houston’s rapid improvement on defense as the Rockets went from No. 18 in defensive efficiency to No. 6 last year.
Houston did re-sign restricted free agent center Clint Capela.
“You have to realize that was me and Chris (Paul’s) first year together,” Harden said. “People were saying, ‘Can they play together? Can they make it work?’ We made it work. It was easy.”
James Harden says he thinks about Game 7 vs. #Warriors every day. “That’s what drives me.” pic.twitter.com/IwZslM6n8A
— Daniel Brown (@mercbrownie) July 26, 2018
Harden has a point. The Rockets went 42-3 when Harden, Paul and Capela played together. They outscored opponents by an average of 11.5 points in those games.
It was Capela, who, after the Rockets beat the Warriors 116-110 on Jan. 20, all but declared a changing of the guard in the Western Conference: “We are better than them.” And for much of the year, including the Conference Finals, he was right. The Rockets earned the No. 1 seed with a franchise-record 65-17 regular season, and led the league in point differential (8.5 points per game).
Dethroning the Warriors was the plan all along, as general manager Daryl Morey made clear on ESPN Radio in December: “It’s the only thing we think about. I think I’m not supposed to say that, but we’re basically obsessed with, ‘How do we beat the Warriors?’”
But did the Rockets miss their window? With Paul out because of a hamstring injury, the Rockets blew a 17-point lead in Game 6 before unraveling again in Game 7, when they went 1 for 21 from long range in the second half.
That’s what haunts Harden. That’s what drives him.
“I try to work my butt off and try to mentally lock in as much as I can to get back to that feeling,” he said. “That feeling. You’re right there. You’re one half away. And then road blockage. You have to find a way to get past that road block. It was just too tough. We have to get back there.”
Getting back there could hinge on a resurgent performance from Carmelo Anthony, the 10-time All-Star, who is expected to sign as a free agent once he clears waivers. He averaged 16.2 points on 40.4 percent shooting (both career lows) for the Oklahoma City Thunder last season. Anthony will likely replace Ariza in the starting lineup.
“Everybody in the world knows what Carmelo brings, how gifted and talented he is,” Harden said. “He still has a lot more to go. If he comes to the Rockets, he’ll bring the best out of us and I’m sure we’ll bring the best out of us as well.”
Harrison Barnes, the former Warrior now with the Dallas Mavericks, agrees.
“The Rockets won 60-plus games last year,” he said with a laugh. “You’re not going to tamper with that. They’re a good team, regardless of losing Ariza and Moute. If they add Carmelo or anyone else, I think they have a system in place that makes them difficult to guard.”
Harden is coming off a season in which he joined Michael Jordan (1987-88) as the only players to average at least 30 points, 8 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.70 steals per game in a season. He became just the second Rocket (Elvin Hayes in 1968-69) to lead the league in scoring and the first since Moses Malone in 1981-82 to average at least 30 points a game.
What it looks like when Kevin Durant hones his moves against Paul George then Victor Oladipo then Devin Booker #Warriors #TeamUSA pic.twitter.com/MMBDtwFRMv
— Daniel Brown (@mercbrownie) July 27, 2018
His reward? The Warriors added an All-Star center while the Los Angeles Lakers brought in LeBron James in hopes of putting together their own super team.
“Nothing changes, man,” Harden said. “The West is already a beast. So the Lakers got better, but they’re still in the conference with the Warriors. So no matter how you look at it, you still have go through some beasts.”
— The Warriors (five) have the most players in this 35-man pool for the USA National Team. Kevin Durant was the only one on the court, while Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green skipped this camp for personal time. Cousins arrived in Las Vegas but is still recovering from an a Achilles injury.