HOUSTON – As the charter flight carried James Harden and three players out of Oklahoma City, out of championship contention, there resonated no nostalgia within him. No hesitation. No regret. For all the insistence that Harden had been devastated over the deal to the Houston Rockets, Cole Aldrich witnessed something else on the private jet whisking them into a Texas sky: a stony, steely resolve.
Before that jet ever touched down in Houston, Harden made a vow to Aldrich: "We're going to change this city."
Harden's time with the Thunder conditioned him to say "we" in the presence of his teammates, but Aldrich and everyone else knows the truth: Harden, most of all, is going to transform the Rockets. His team, his time.
Out of the smoky introductions on Saturday night, out of general manager Daryl Morey's wildest star-chasing dreams, Harden marched into the Toyota Center with a compilation of credibility to proclaim ownership of the campaign season's most worn-out term: change.
From doubts over his worthiness of a five-year, $80 million maximum contract to his legitimacy as a franchise star, Harden delivered a sledgehammer of 37 and 45 points in consecutive Rockets' victories over Detroit and Atlanta.
"He's come in with a chip on his shoulder, and it's been incredible for us," one Rockets official said.
The franchise and Harden knew this was no fairytale, that his and the Rockets' sloppy, disjointed performance in a 95-85 overtime loss to the Portland Trail Blazers was inevitable, and part of the painful process of rebooting a team into playoff contention. For all his shooting struggles, he still had the ball in his hands, the clock ticking down on regulation and a chance to deliver on the drama. When Harden tried to make his move, Wesley Matthews slapped the ball away and soon overtime belonged to the Blazers.
When his first loss as the face of the franchise was over, the routine had changed for Harden. No more Kevin Durant. No more Russell Westbrook. Everyone had come to his locker, wondering where the magic had gone in his game on this night, the explosion to the rim, the legs to make a jumper. After a torrid start to Saturday night, Harden jammed an ankle, hobbled on his way to missing 16 of 24 shots, turned the ball over five times, and yet: No one cares and no one wants to hear it.
The franchise star just stands there, and says what Harden did: "I don't make excuses. I had opportunities to make plays and make shots, and I just didn't."
To Harden, the Rockets looked "clueless" on offense, and the solution was simple: They need practice time together, need to learn each other. Left behind in Oklahoma City had been remarkable talent and chemistry. The process of bringing that culture to Houston started where Morey and coach Kevin McHale believed it would: behind the scenes, where no one else was watching Harden.
When Harden walked into practice for the first time a week earlier, he introduced himself to teammates with a strong dose of that daily Oklahoma City culture: Tuck in your shirts, fellas, and let's get to work. When Rockets assistant coach Kelvin Sampson went over the Portland scouting report before Saturday's game in the locker room, there suddenly rose a most patient arm into the air.
"Uh, yes, James?" Sampson asked, part-startled and part-moved.
Harden had an idea about a wrinkle on one of the plays and wanted to share it with the coach, but was hesitant to speak out. So he raised his hand and waited for the coach to call on him. Sampson had to laugh, and make no mistake: Sampson incorporated the idea into the game plan.
"That's what we learned to do in Oklahoma City, and that's what we'll know to do here with such a young team," Aldrich said. "James led us in Oklahoma City, too. You'd be out of position, and he'd be vocal to get you in the right spot. He was there early working and he stayed late working. That's what guys will see here too."
When Houston's management took Harden to dinner on his first night as a Rocket, that was the biggest message they wanted to impart: Be a leader, but be yourself. So far, so good. Yet the test doesn't come with the whirlwind opening week of historic scoring debuts and long, loud standing ovations.
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So far, so good, yes. And so far, no adversity. No long losing streaks. No trip back to Oklahoma City to get buried under the avalanche of Durant and Westbrook baskets. Nevertheless, Harden delivered a message to the Rockets on the floor and off it: In good times and bad, follow me. That's the foundation for a franchise player. That's the start.
After icing that tender ankle, James Harden was the final Rocket to leave the locker room. Out the door he walked with a slow limp, a deliberate, stilted gait. He wore his Rockets sweatsuit and had a backpack snugly wrapped around him. The starry opening act had ended, and now the grind had begun. He limped along, one step at a time, and this is how a basketball star begins to change a city.
James Harden has his franchise now, a young, impressionable roster looking for him to lead the way. So yes, tuck in your shirts, fellas, and get to work.
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