Rockets embarking on a new mission with Harden and Westbrook

In the week leading up to the Houston Rockets’ training camp, pictures of Russell Westbrook and James Harden — squared up face-to-face, smiling ear-to-ear, hands in boxing gloves — started popping up online.

A fun moment, and a cutesy, accidental commentary — look at us, the picture said, the best of friends, so tight we can mock the idea that our pairing is combustible — resembling a much more orchestrated parody-turned-reality from 2013, when Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard put their fists up with Mike D’Antoni, who coached those Lakers and these Rockets, wedged between them looking like Ghostface from “Scream.” Maybe Harden and Westbrook will succeed, the picture eventually lost to history, denying the internet its schadenfreude. Or maybe they’ll fall apart and become a meme.

There’s a reason, after all, that these Rockets in particular would value the physical and mental stamina of MMA training. Search for the through line between what went right for the 2017-2018 Rockets and what went wrong for the 2018-2019 Rockets, and you’ll find the regular variables — injuries, luck, role-player personnel changes — but lock in on the things they actually could control and one thing stands out: chemistry.

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“It’s a little overblown,” D’Antoni told Yahoo Sports. “For the most part, we had it. And then in difficult times, it got a little, you know, dicey, but at the end of the day, the Warriors were better.”

We can debate the second part, but actions speak louder than words. The full-strength Rockets got bounced by the limping Warriors, a year after almost overcoming their own injuries against a full-strength Warriors team. In June, Yahoo Sports’ Vince Goodwill reported that Chris Paul wanted a trade. Twenty-three days later, he and some draft picks were traded to the Thunder in a deal for Westbrook.

“The most exciting part about [the season] is going through the tough times, going through the grind days, going through three games in four nights, five games in seven nights,” Harden said on media day. “That’s how you build character, that’s how you build trust in each other. When things aren’t going great, you gotta come even closer together. That’s one of the things we were missing last year.”

And anyway, the point of chemistry is too smooth over difficulty, not get toppled by it. So there they were in Las Vegas, training with retired UFC Hall of Famer Forrest Griffin at the UFC Performance Institute, trying to manufacture hard times.

Russell Westbrook and James Harden, right, love to dribble the basketball. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke, File)
Russell Westbrook and James Harden, right, love to dribble the basketball. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke, File)

Javair Gillett, the Rockets’ director of athletic performance, or, as Daryl Morey calls him, the guy who “comes up with all the cool s---,” came up with this particular endeavor at the direction of Harden, who wanted to engage in team-bonding activities. “James and I are always looking for ways we can build that team camaraderie,” Gillett told Yahoo Sports.

The benefits of MMA training, Gillett said, are “two-fold.”

“One, it’s a change of environment,” Gillett said. “It puts them in a very uncomfortable environment, which can challenge them. At the same time, it takes mechanical stress off their legs, but we can get conditioning in, get their heart rate up.”

The skillwork, Gillett hopes, can transfer physically and mentally, from tactics on how to hold off an opponent trying to box you out to the mindstate that regularizes man-to-man combat and strengthens focus. “You have to hold yourself accountable,” Gillett said. “In a team sport, you can easily pass the buck sometimes. In an individualized thing, it’s all on you.” That’s a lesson that, in a world with perfect through lines, could transfer to defensive intensity.

In fighting, mental and physical stamina align. “It builds toughness, mentality, so it’s both mind and body,” Gillett said. There may be no better way to prime the soul for the rigors of a season that promises to have bumps and requires malleability. In any event, trying new things re-familiarizes the brain with the reality of progress: failure, and the fact that, if one perseveres, success often follows.

Toward the end of the Rockets’ first practice on Sept. 28, Westbrook is boisterously cheering on every shot that goes up on his side of the practice facility at the Toyota Center. “Good shot, G!” he shouts, after Gerald Green hoists a three. “Come on, P.J. [Tucker]!” Beady-eyed and intense, it’s like he’s an A.I. programmed to affirm as many of his teammates as possible, unintimidated by sensory overload in a session that includes lob dunks and corner threes going up in the same moment. Free-agent signee Tyson Chandler is his proxy on the other end of the court.

Together, Chandler and Westbrook are like dribbling positive affirmation machines.

With Westbrook, it’s been a pleasant bonus. “James had so much experience with him, it wasn’t hard to get info on who he is as a person,” Morey told Yahoo Sports. “As usual — it’s happened to me a lot in my career — what you hear about Russell is not really Russell.”

With Chandler, it’s exactly what D’Antoni had in mind.

“If you want a picture of a guy that creates chemistry and enthusiasm,” said D’Antoni, who coached Chandler in New York, “he’s the best. Whether he plays a day for us, or whether he plays a lot, he’s going to be valuable to us.”

Chandler arrived to the Knicks in 2011, following the formative leadership experiences of his life. In the summer of 2010, he played for Team USA and watched Chauncey Billups shepherd a young, inexperienced but talented group to the FIBA World Championship. “We were in Turkey, an unfamiliar place, in a hostile environment. We played Turkey in the championship in Turkey. We played Spain in Spain. We played Greece in Greece,” Chandler told Yahoo Sports. “All these verified hostile games with a Team USA that — same as this summer — they didn’t have us winning anything. They said, ‘This group is too young to win,’ and Chauncey just threw it all out the window. You don’t pay attention to your perception. You’ve got one job to do. Let’s just lock in on our job.”

Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni, center, shares a laugh with James Harden (13) and Russell Westbrook (0) during a preseason game. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)
Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni, center, shares a laugh with James Harden (13) and Russell Westbrook (0) during a preseason game. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)

Then he joined the Dallas Mavericks, another insular unit that didn’t give a damn about the fact that it wasn’t supposed to win anything and went on to win a championship. “I kept that same mentality of what we had just went through in the summer and brought it there,” he said.

It’s hard to remember now, because of how beloved he was upon retirement, but Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs’ Finals MVP, was maligned in a manner similar to Harden: an unguardable scorer until it mattered most, with weak defense and a passive voice in the locker room. Chandler is quick to point out that, like Nowitzki, Harden leads by example, with his work ethic.

But even Harden, who has become incrementally more outspoken throughout the years, emphasized leadership as a point of focus this season. “Just my voice. My work ethic is always going to be there,” Harden said. “My game is always going to speak for itself, but just building my guys up, building that confidence in each individual player to make them go out there and whatever role they’re in, be the best in their role.”

“We talked about being positive,” D’Antoni said. “They naturally want to. Tyson really helps with that. P.J. really helps with that. Guys are visibly affected by teammates.

For the Rockets, the benefits of positivity are both structural and spiritual. A team that shoots from deep as much as the Rockets needs to believe after misses, to not lose itself in the time before the shots start falling again. Take the Rockets’ Game 7 loss to the Warriors in 2017, when they missed a whopping 27 threes in a row. Dumb luck gave way to hesitation, to muscles cramping and twitching. They turned inward and timid, and a brief shooting spell morphed into an inevitability. Westbrook, on that note, is never nervous. He too has gone down to the Warriors, but he has gone down swinging. His energy, unaffected by the environment in the arena, guards against the possibility of timidity.

“He’s just been an amazing team guy and person,” Morey said. “It’s still early days, you know he’s a very competitive guy so maybe we go through a losing streak, things get harder, but I want competitive guys so …”

He trails off.

By fusing Harden and Westbrook, the Rockets are toeing the line between explosiveness and self-destruction.

Raised tough in the SoCal basketball circuit, the two first met when they were 10. They reunited as teammates in Oklahoma City, before parting ways to become who they are today: ball-dominant, triple-double machines, MVP’s, similar in how they function on the court, but unrecognizable in style. They put the ball in a chokehold, holding it for an average of 17 seconds combined last year. Putting them together in a league in which low-maintenance superstars like Stephen Curry, who let go of the throttle and are increasingly en vogue, was bold. The maximum time of a possession, after all, is 24 seconds, with one ball and three other guys on the floor.

Houston’s superseding belief is that superstars who want to make it work, will. On media day, Harden told reporters, “If Russ got it going and Russ is having one of those games that we’ve all seen before, guess what I’m going to do? Sit back and watch the show, and vice versa.”

But desire, like chemistry, resembles a flame: strong yet fragile, as capable of spreading as it is culpable to being put out, requiring maintenance and protection when the weather turns bad. Harden and Westbrook want to make this marriage work. The only question is how badly.

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