Happy Harden has Houston Rockets surging toward postseason

HOUSTON (AP) Ask James Harden about how happy he is running coach Mike D'Antoni's offense and a smile spreads across his face before the sentence is done.

Harden has shaken off the disappointment of last season to thrive under D'Antoni and become a leading candidate for league MVP. His performance has the Houston Rockets thinking this could be the year they contend for a title.

The Rockets are third in the Western Conference with less than a month left in the regular season and on the cusp of securing their fifth straight playoff berth.

''We're all in a good place right now and we're for each other,'' Harden said. ''So just ride this momentum into the postseason.''

Harden knew all about what D'Antoni did with the Phoenix Suns teams led by Steve Nash, and couldn't wait to see how his up-tempo offense would translate in Houston. So far things have exceeded even the high expectations Harden had.

''Yeah, especially when you've got guys that are encouraging you, that are having just as much fun as you and you're all playing together,'' he said. ''That makes it exciting.''

Harden had 38 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds on Sunday night in a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers to outshine LeBron James and collect his 16th triple-double this season. His 29.1 points a game rank third in the NBA and in his first season as the team's point guard he leads the league by averaging 11.2 assists. Harden's 216 3-pointers are second in the NBA and lead a 3-point crazy team that is first in the league with 983so far this season.

Harden has had some great seasons before this one, but having the ball in his hands on every play as the point guard has taken things to another level. But he knows he must do even more for the Rockets to have a shot at their first title since they won back to back championships in 1994 and 1995.

''I can always improve,'' he said. ''We can always improve as a team and we will.''

Much is made about Harden being a good fit for D'Antoni, especially after coach Kevin McHale was fired last year after just 11 games and the Rockets were ousted from the playoffs by Golden State in the first round. But Houston's first-year coach might be even more thrilled that he has a talent like Harden to implement his offensive vision.

''The system only works if you have good players, and he's probably the best in the league,'' D'Antoni said. ''So that makes it easy. You'd have to be an imbecile not to be able to come up with something that makes him look good.''

D'Antoni has not only been impressed with Harden's play, but also with how he's embraced his role as this team's undisputed leader this season with Dwight Howard gone to Atlanta.

''He's very coachable and he took to the point guard role,'' D'Antoni said. ''He wanted to be a point guard. Not just in name, but he does everything on and off the court that point guards need to do. It's been great.''

Harden's scoring is on par with his work from last season, but his rebounding and assists have both taken significant jumps. He finished last season averaging 6.1 rebounds and is averaging 7.9 this year and his league-leading assist average is up from just 7.5 a year ago.

Obviously, his assists have been helped by his move to point guard, but he gives a lot of credit to new teammates Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson and their shooting abilities. Gordon ranks third in the NBA with 210 3-pointers and Anderson has added 179.

Harden leads the league by making 66.9 passes a game and his assist points created are 27.3, best in the league.

He said he loves how the team has come together. As good as the Rockets have been this season, Harden is confident that they can take things up a notch in the postseason.

''We can be better - on both ends of the floor, too,'' Harden said. ''That's what's pretty scary.''

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