Houston Rockets star James Harden made his arrival to the NBA’s Orlando bubble a week after the rest of the team: “I’m happy I’m here.”
Houston Rocket’s star James Harden wasted no time addressing the elephant in the virtual room.
“I had some family issues but I’m happy I’m here. It felt really good to be out there with the guys, getting after it and just pushing our way,” Harden said. “Every single day it will be a new challenge for us but we’re in the right steps.”
And with that, the Beard was back.
Harden’s absence from the Orlando Bubble – as well as teammates Russell Westbrook and Luc Mbah a Moute – had been the subject of speculation all week after it was revealed that all three did not travel with the team. Westbrook announced via social media on Monday that he had tested positive for COVID-19. There’s been no word on Mbah a Moute. Houston Rockets head coach D’Antoni merely said on Thursday that neither he nor Westbrook had made it to Orlando.
The arrival of Harden brings a different energy and level of intensity to a scrappy Rockets team that entered the NBA’s coronavirus-induced hiatus with a 40-24 record and sat sixth in the Western Conference standings. Some are labeling them one of the teams to beat during this shortened 22-game NBA restart. But there’s only one way the Rockets typically ascend:
In short, the Rockets go the way of Harden.
“He looked good. He was probably rusty for about 30 seconds. He played well today,” D’Antoni said. “He played a lot today. It was a good beginning.”
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The first scrimmage of the Disney bubble for the Rockets will be against the defending champion Toronto Raptors on Friday, July 24th. D’Antoni said he is not worried about Harden and his ability to get up to speed quickly after missing a week of practice.
“He went through the full practice like everybody else. He’s been working anyway. I’m really pleased,” D’Antoni said. “I think in the scrimmage he’ll want to play. If he needs a few less minutes, whatever he needs we’ll do.
“He knows his body, he knows how to get ready and I know come those 8 (seeding) games he’ll be ready to go.”
Teammate Ben McLemore said he’s the “same James. It was great to see him, great to have him back. He didn’t miss a beat at all. Same old James Harden.”
Harden spent time talking about his conditioning and ensuring all that he’s good to go.
“I feel like I’m in a good place. Today was the first time I actually played pick-up, 5-on 5, contact in over a month,” Harden admitted. “Individual working out and conditioning is totally different. You can do track workouts and all different types of things but when you’re out there you get bumped and have to make plays and make reads and get up and down the court, it’s totally different.
“But it felt really good today. I pushed myself through it today and like I said, every single day I’ll just continue to get better.”
Harden said besides basketball which he labeled as “natural,” he spent the almost four months the league was shut down running, weightlifting, staying in the gym “and I even did a little yoga. I know it was hard with some gyms not open at first and we had to be creative. Now that we are here and we have a place and platform, it’s exciting.”
Staying on conditioning, Harden said to the degree that a team is conditioned physically and mentally is how far they will go in the playoffs.
“For everybody who can be in shape, who can mentally turn that switch on as a team – it’s great individually – but whoever can create that bond in these next few weeks to push themselves and kind of hit that switch in playoff mode will give themselves the best chance.”
And speaking of chances, Harden said he is “excited” for the Rocket’s chances of winning it all this year.
“Once we get Russ back and we have our full roster healthy, and we get in shape, we can compete with anybody.
“There’s no home-court advantage,” Harden continued. “There’s no fans. It’s you vs us. and we have to figure it out doesn’t matter what seed, it’s about making sure our offense and defense is crispy and if we’re all on the same page we’ll play anybody.”
Harden also addressed his plans to support social justice while in Orlando: “I’m in the process of working that out right now, figuring out if I want to put a message on my back (jersey) or another way to deliver my message.
“But somehow my message will get across.”
Harden finished speaking with the media assuring anyone in doubt that nothing with him has changed.
“I think the world knows no matter what’s going on James harden loves to hoop. He’s a competitor,” he said speaking of himself in the third person. “Today in practice we got after it. We pushed ourselves and I did a lot of trash-talking, as usual, just to keep the guys motivated and to keep pushing.”
And with that, the Beard is, indeed, back.