March 21, 2019

A year to the day after Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni called James Harden “the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” he declined to use the evidence of Harden’s best season to respond to those who mocked him for that opinion last March 20.

“If I spent my time doing that, I’ll probably be here all day,” D’Antoni said.

A year ago, D’Antoni drew considerable attention and criticism for his description of Harden’s offensive talents that now seem prescient. Harden went into Wednesday’s game averaging 35.9 points and 7.8 assists, the most assists ever for a 35-point scorer, while doing it in fewer minutes with fewer shots.

“That’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” D’Antoni said a year ago. “He just steps a little further back and makes a 3. The way he can pass, see the floor, get fouls, layups, floaters, maybe a lob, maybe out to the corner — he has so many weapons. Now, he’s shooting those step-back 3s, it’s impossible to guard him. It’s impossible.”

A year later, his viewpoint hasn’t changed.

“Still the same, maybe better,” D’Antoni said. ““His step-back’s better. He just went on a two-month tear (averaging more than 40 points). It’s incredible what he’s doing.”

Harden went into Wednesday’s game averaging 44 points in his first three meetings with Memphis.

“There’s nothing he can’t do on the offensive end of the floor,” said Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who was an assistant coach and an interim head coach with the Rockets. “There’s no direction he can’t go and be effective. There’s no pass he can’t make, and there’s no shot he can’t make. He’s got athleticism. He’s got size. He’s got strength.

“I can go on and on and on about him. And he’s got the confidence and belief and will that he can do it all. When you get a guy that has that skill set and has that belief, they’re hard to guard. They’re hard to dictate into what you really want them to do.”

Shumpert draws

first starting nod

Forward Iman Shumpert got his first start with the Rockets on Wednesday, filling in for Eric Gordon who was given the night off. But the move was actually driven by the absences of the Rockets’ centers behind starter Clint Capela.

Kenneth Faried was out with a sore right knee. Nene was scheduled for a day off, but on the active list. Rookie Isaiah Hartenstein has been out with a sore right Achilles since his call-up from the G League. That made P.J. Tucker the backup center.

“I would normally start Danuel House (with Gordon out), but P.J.’s got to play some five, so Danuel’s going to have to get his minutes at the four, mostly,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “That’s the biggest reason.”

The Rockets have employed 20 different starting lineups this season.

Players focus on

how they play

With the final regular-season game just three weeks away, guard Chris Paul said the Rockets’ focus is not on seeding or matchups, or even rest days, compared to the quality of play the team hopes to bring into the postseason.

“We keep hooping,” he said. “I don’t think we worry too much about the minutes. We try to play the right way and with the right spirit. I think most teams, whether it’s Golden State or OKC, the veteran teams, they don’t really care what seed they are. I think we’re one of those teams, too.”

Jonathan Feigen