James Harden seizing opportunity to lead Rockets

Adrian Wojnarowski
Yahoo Sports

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."

View photo

.

James Harden, right, has brought a relentless presence to Houston. (AP)

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.

[Related: James Harden-Jeremy Lin looking like NBA's best backcourt]

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.

[Also: Eric Gordon out 4-6 weeks with knee injury]

"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.

[Fantasy Basketball '12: Play the official game of NBA.com]

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.

Related NBA video from Yahoo! Sports

Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke among players eyeing big free-agency payoffs
Sean Payton's contract extension was voided by the NFL
The most celebrated technical foul in college hoops (video)
Y! Travel: America's best gourmet taco joints

  • Buffalo Bills cheerleaders suspend operations

    Buffalo Bills cheerleaders suspend operations

    Pack up the pom-poms in Buffalo, because the Bills will be playing without the support of their official cheerleaders this year. Stephanie Mateczun, whose company manages the Buffalo Jills cheerleading squad, said Thursday she has suspended … More »

    AP - Sports - 12 minutes ago
  • Michael Phelps loses to Lochte in comeback meet

    Michael Phelps loses to Lochte in comeback meet

    Michael Phelps is 0 for 1 in his comeback to the pool. The 22-time Olympic medalist lost to Ryan Lochte in the 100-meter butterfly final at the Arena Grand Prix on Thursday night. Phelps was second in 52.13 in his first meet since retiring after … More »

    AP - Sports - 17 minutes ago
  • Westbrook's Amazing Three

    Westbrook's Amazing Three

    Russell Westbrook gets fouled and buries an amazing 3-pointer during the 4th quarter. … More »

    NBA.com - 17 minutes ago
  • Michael Phelps beaten in first comeback final

    Michael Phelps beaten in first comeback final

    By Julian Linden PHOENIX (Reuters) - Michael Phelps suffered a narrow loss to old rival Ryan Lochte in his comeback to competitive swimming on Thursday, but still showed enough to suggest he will be a force to be reckoned with. Racing for the … More »

    Reuters - 18 minutes ago
  • Westbrook's Big Three

    Westbrook's Big Three

    Russell Westbrook draws the foul and sinks an incredible three-pointer. … More »

    NBA.com - 19 minutes ago
  • Lolo's track transition continues at Drake Relays

    Lolo's track transition continues at Drake Relays

    Lolo Jones will continue her quick transition from bobsled to track this weekend with a hometown advantage. Jones will compete Friday at the Drake Relays in her native Des Moines, just two months removed from an 11th-place finish as a brakeman for … More »

    AP - Sports - 20 minutes ago
  • Everest climbing season in disarray as climbing teams cancel and more Sherpas leave base camp

    Everest climbing season in disarray as climbing teams cancel and more Sherpas leave base camp

    KATMANDU, Nepal - Nepal's attempts to salvage the Mount Everest climbing season took another hit Friday as more Sherpa mountain guides packed and left the base camp for their village homes a week after the deadliest disaster on the world's highest … More »

    The Canadian Press - 20 minutes ago
  • Senna had so much to offer, says sister

    Senna had so much to offer, says sister

    By Andrew Downie SAO PAULO (Reuters) - For Brazilians of a certain generation, the death of Ayrton Senna is not unlike September 11 or the assassination of John F. Kennedy. "It’s funny, it doesn’t seem like it was 20 years ago," hissister Viviane … More »

    Reuters - 23 minutes ago
  • Reds' Simon accused of sexual assault

    Reds' Simon accused of sexual assault

    A woman who said Cincinnati Reds pitcher Alfredo Simon sexually assaulted her in a Washington hotel a year ago when the team was in town to play the Nationals is suing the player for $15 million. The woman, identified as Jane Doe, filed the civil … More »

    AP - Sports - 25 minutes ago
  • Everest climbing season in disarray after deaths

    Nepal's attempts to salvage the Mount Everest climbing season took another hit Friday as more Sherpa mountain guides packed and left the base camp for their village homes a week after the deadliest disaster on the world's highest mountain. Their … More »

    AP - Sports - 27 minutes ago
  • Udrih Spins and Hits

    Udrih Spins and Hits

    Beno Udrih spins off his defender to the rack and finishes with a layup. … More »

    NBA.com - 29 minutes ago
  • Phelps loses to Lochte in 100 butterfly final at comeback meet in Arizona

    Phelps loses to Lochte in 100 butterfly final at comeback meet in Arizona

    MESA, Ariz. - Michael Phelps is 0 for 1 in his comeback to the pool. The 22-time Olympic medallist lost to Ryan Lochte in the 100-meter butterfly final at the Arena Grand Prix on Thursday night. … More »

    The Canadian Press - 33 minutes ago
  • Cruz extends RBI streak, Orioles win

    Cruz extends RBI streak, Orioles win

    TORONTO (AP) -- Chris Davis had two hits and three RBIs, Jonathan Schoop homered and the Baltimore Orioles beat the Toronto Blue Jays 11-4 on Thursday night. … More »

    AP - Sports - 41 minutes ago
  • Pacers vs. Hawks: Game 3

    Pacers vs. Hawks: Game 3

    Jeff Teague scores 22 points and dishes out 10 assists as the Hawks knock off the Pacers in Game 3. … More »

    NBA.com - 42 minutes ago
  • Hawks take 2-1 lead on top-seeded Pacers

    Hawks take 2-1 lead on top-seeded Pacers

    Jeff Teague flung in a wild 3-pointer after the officials missed him stepping out of bounds, and Kyle Korver finished off Indiana from beyond the arc to lead the Atlanta Hawks to a 98-85 victory Thursday night and another lead in the series with the … More »

    AP - Sports - 42 minutes ago
  • Teague scores 22, Korver 20 to lead Hawks past top-seeded Pacers 98-85 for 2-1 lead in series

    Teague scores 22, Korver 20 to lead Hawks past top-seeded Pacers 98-85 for 2-1 lead in series

    ATLANTA - Jeff Teague flung in a wild 3-pointer after the officials missed him stepping out of bounds, and Kyle Korver finished off Indiana from beyond the arc to lead the Atlanta Hawks to a 98-85 victory Thursday night and another lead in the … More »

    The Canadian Press - 42 minutes ago
  • Phelps beaten in first comeback final

    Phelps beaten in first comeback final

    By Julian Linden PHOENIX (Reuters) - Michael Phelps suffered a narrow loss to old rival Ryan Lochte in his comeback to competitive swimming on Thursday, but still showed enough to suggest he will be a force to be reckoned with. Racing for the … More »

    Reuters - 48 minutes ago
  • Martin shoots course record 62, leads by two in New Orleans

    (Reuters) - Ben Martin fired a course record 10-under-par 62 to take a two-stroke lead in the opening round of the $6.8 million Zurich Classic of New Orleans on Thursday. Martin made light of gusting afternoon winds to reel off 10 birdies, capped … More »

    Reuters - 50 minutes ago
  • Toronto Blue Jays fall back to .500 mark after 11-4 loss to Baltimore Orioles

    TORONTO - The Toronto Blue Jays wasted a quality start by Drew Hutchison and fell back to the .500 mark by dropping an 11-4 decision to the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday night at Rogers Centre. Hutchison worked six solid innings and left the game … More »

    The Canadian Press - 50 minutes ago
  • Conley's High Scoop Shot

    Conley's High Scoop Shot

    Mike Conley drives to the basket and sinks an amazing shot. … More »

    NBA.com - 58 minutes ago
  • Prince Down the Lane

    Prince Down the Lane

    Tayshaun Prince drives the lane for the finger-roll finish. … More »

    NBA.com - 1 hour 0 minutes ago
  • Trip Tips: Brazil's beachless metropolis is a foodie's paradise

    Trip Tips: Brazil's beachless metropolis is a foodie's paradise

    By Todd Benson SAO PAULO (Reuters) - If your idea of Brazil is beaches and bikinis, São Paulo is not the place to go. But if you're a seasoned traveler who tends to shun traditional tourism hot spots for urban adventures off the beaten trail, then … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 0 minutes ago
  • Swimming-Phelps beaten in first comeback final

    * Phelps narrowly beaten by Lochte in comeback race * Still satisfied with return despite loss * Qualifies for national titles later this year (Updates after final) By Julian Linden PHOENIX, April 24 (Reuters) - Michael Phelps suffered a narrow … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 2 minutes ago
  • Golf-Martin shoots course record 62, leads by two in New Orleans

    Ben Martin fired a course record 10-under-par 62 to take a two-stroke lead in the opening round of the $6.8 million Zurich Classic of New Orleans on Thursday. Martin made light of gusting afternoon winds to reel off 10 birdies, capped off by a … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 7 minutes ago
  • Blatter wants to revive 6+5 proposal

    Blatter wants to revive 6+5 proposal

    FIFA president Sepp Blatter wants to revive his so-called 6+5 proposal which would force clubs to field at least six players from their own country. The idea won the backing of the FIFA Congress in 2008 but was ditched after it fell foul of … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 11 minutes ago
  • Fresno St. finalizes DeRuyter extension

    FRESNO, Calif. (AP) -- Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter has signed a contract extension that runs through 2018 worth at least $7.5 million. … More »

    AP - Sports - 1 hour 11 minutes ago
  • The day Senna grabbed F1's attention

    The day Senna grabbed F1's attention

    By Alan Baldwin LONDON (Reuters) - While Formula One remembers Ayrton Senna on the 20th anniversary of his death at Imola, happier memories of another race 10 years earlier highlight just why the great Brazilian is still so sorely missed. The 1984 … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 14 minutes ago
  • Senna's simple grave a magnet for fans 20 years on

    Senna's simple grave a magnet for fans 20 years on

    By Andrew Downie SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Ayrton Senna is as discreet in death as he was lively in life. The last resting place of Brazil's most charismatic Formula One champion is marked by a brass plaque on a circular lawn, surrounded by almost … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 17 minutes ago
  • Ayrton Senna's Formula One career

    Ayrton Senna's Formula One career

    (Reuters) - May 1 marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Brazil's triple Formula One champion Ayrton Senna in the San Marino Grand Prix at Italy's Imola circuit. The following details the main points of his career: - - - - * Born Ayrton Senna … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 18 minutes ago
  • Ryan Nelsen sympathetic to Moyse, believes fired Man U boss will succeed elsewhere

    TORONTO - Toronto FC manager Ryan Nelsen was quick to offer sympathy — and support — to fired Manchester United boss David Moyes. "He's very good at what he does," Nelsen said Thursday after practice. "And what (Roberto) Martinez is doing at … More »

    The Canadian Press - 1 hour 25 minutes ago
  • Teague Beats the Buzzer

    Teague Beats the Buzzer

    Jeff Teague drains an amazing 3-pointer during the fourth quarter. … More »

    NBA.com - 1 hour 27 minutes ago
  • Wings' Zetterberg in lineup vs. Bruins

    Wings' Zetterberg in lineup vs. Bruins

    Henrik Zetterberg is in the lineup for the Detroit Red Wings in Game 4 against the Boston Bruins. Jonas Gustavsson is, too. Red Wings coach Mike Babcock told reporters that doctors would ultimately decide if Zetterberg could play Thursday night … More »

    AP - Sports - 1 hour 29 minutes ago
  • Westbrook for Three

    Westbrook for Three

    Russell Westbrook comes off the screen to drain his first three-pointer of the game. … More »

    NBA.com - 1 hour 36 minutes ago
  • Korver's Big Three

    Korver's Big Three

    Kyle Korver gets fouled and buries a 3-pointer from the wing. … More »

    NBA.com - 1 hour 38 minutes ago
  • Martin shoots course-record 62 at Zurich

    Martin shoots course-record 62 at Zurich

    A few weeks ago, Ben Martin had missed seven of eight cuts and figured he'd better make some changes. On Thursday, Martin treated a tiny late-afternoon gallery to a course-record round, shooting a 10-under 62 in the first round of the Zurich … More »

    AP - Sports - 1 hour 41 minutes ago
  • Udrih Sinks the Leaner

    Udrih Sinks the Leaner

    Beno Udrih sinks the leaning jumper off the screen by Marc Gasol. … More »

    NBA.com - 1 hour 45 minutes ago
  • Perkins Sits On Miller

    Perkins Sits On Miller

    Kendrick Perkins sits on top of Mike Miller during the second quarter. … More »

    NBA.com - 1 hour 45 minutes ago
  • Golf-U.S. PGA Tour New Orleans Classic scores

    April 25 (Infostrada Sports) - Scores from the U.S. PGA Tour New Orleans Classic at the par-72 course on Thursday in Avondale, Louisiana 62 Ben Martin (U.S.) 62 64 Andrew Svoboda (U.S.) 64 65 Peter Hanson (Sweden) 65 Noh Seung-Yul (South Korea) 65 … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 48 minutes ago
  • Imola still a shock 20 years on for Hill

    Imola still a shock 20 years on for Hill

    By Alan Baldwin LONDON (Reuters) - When Damon Hill casts his mind back 20 years to the Imola weekend that claimed the lives of team mate Ayrton Senna and Austrian Roland Ratzenberger, it is with a sense of almost disbelief. "I hardly got a chance … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 53 minutes ago
  • Former world downhill champion Kucera retires

    (Reuters) - John Kucera, the first Canadian man to win an alpine ski world championship downhill title, announced his retirement on Thursday following a string of injuries. The highlight of Kucera's racing career came in 2009 when he was the … More »

    Reuters - 1 hour 55 minutes ago