Houston Rockets guard James Harden discusses what he learned from losing in the NBA Finals and what it takes to beat the Golden State Warriors.
At the start of February, Houston sits in seventh place in the West, still looking for stability after a slow start led to the November firing of head coach Kevin McHale. Harden, to his credit, is averaging 27.9 points, 7.0 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game this season after being voted MVP at the inaugural NBA Players' Awards last summer.
Harden spoke to SI.com over the phone recently on behalf of Bodyarmor, which launched its brand in Texas last week. The Rockets became the first NBA team to be sponsored by the sports drink at the beginning of 2015–16. Harden says he took an interest in the product because he's been "watching his diet and how it affects him on the court." The Rockets star spoke to SI.com about about his involvement with the drink, what he's learned from his postseason experiences and more.
Rohan Nadkarni: Who do you consider to be your toughest matchup in the league?
James Harden: Every night I see the [other team's] best defender. There are so many young guys in the league now that are evolving. The Kyries, Andrew Wiggins, so many guys. I feel like every night is going to be a competitive battle, especially at my position, when I’m always seeing the other team’s best defender.
RN: I think sometimes people forget you’ve already played in a Finals series. What did you take away from that experience?
JH: That playoff series was like a different season. Obviously you have the regular season then you got the playoffs. But once you get to the Western Conference finals and the Finals, it was like a different season. It wasn’t about your physical abilities at that point, it was about your mental capacity and how well can you focus, and how long can you focus and not make mistakes. Because up at that point, each and every team knows your plays, they know your tendencies, they know each and everything about you. They know all things that can put you over the top. The Heat had just come off a Finals loss, so they knew what that felt like. They were prepared. Us, as a young team, it was our first year and we came up short. And then that was it.
RN: You guys are coming off a loss to the Warriors in the playoffs. What will it take to beat them in a seven-game series?
JH: Last year we were close. I think the first two games we lost by six or seven points total. All of the games were really tight. They’re a great team, obviously they shoot a lot of threes. We have to figure out a way to slow Klay (Thompson) and Steph (Curry) down. When they’re making a lot of threes, it’s tough. But if you can find a way to contest all their shots, and make all the other guys take contested shots as well, then you have a chance. It’s when you let them make layups, freely get threes, then everyone starts making threes and it’s a disaster after that. Obviously they’re a really good team. Their bigs are really good passers, you have to make sure to pressure their bigs as well. It’s easier said than done.
RN: You also shoot a lot of threes and layups. How did your game evolve to what it is now? Did it come from a team philosophy or conversation? Or did you take it upon yourself?
JH: Well, if anyone watched my game in high school that's all I did. There wasn't any conversation about only shooting threes or layups. In high school, college, that’s all I did. I think that’s one of the reasons [Houston general manager] Daryl [Morey] wanted me so bad. I fit their style of play. But I’m not only shooting threes. Now I shoot a lot more midrange then I ever shot in my career. I mix it up. I don’t turn down any bad shots, whether it’s a two or a three. I don’t overthink the game.
RN: On a personal level, what was the adjustment like becoming a face of the franchise? Did you feel pressure?
JH: I never felt pressure. I was always confident I was capable of doing it. It was just the process of trying to figure out how to do it. I put the work in. I work extremely hard. I wasn't nervous about that aspect. Just figuring out how to lead, how to be effective every single night. And how to make my teammates happy. I think that was the hardest part. I’m still trying to figure that out. The last couple years have definitely been an experience for me.
RN: How do you keep focus on the regular season when you know you'll be judged on postseason success?
JH: I think it’s my teammates. Obviously, we all know the playoffs are most important. But the regular season is figuring out how to get your teammates prepared for the playoffs, how to get certain guys playing well. There are going to be ups and downs. But it’s about figuring out how I can get them to play at the best of their abilities, so when the playoffs come around, I know how to get them going. It’s a tough job, especially for a leader, but it’s something that has to be done.
RN: Where do you see this team stacked up in the West right now?
JH: We’re still not where we want to be. We have a long way to go. We’ve had a lot of guys injured, in and out of the lineup. It’s been hard to catch a rhythm, kind of where we were last year, it's hard to catch our offensive and defensive rhythm. You see some of these really good teams like the Warriors, Spurs, and Thunder, they've had their teams, their lineups. They kind of know their different spots, on the court where they’re going to be. Unfortunately, we haven’t had that luxury. We’re trying to figure it out. We started off slow but we’re trying to get better. And the only way we can go is up now.
This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.