HARDEN HAS TO DO LESS FOR TEAM TO DO MORE

Winning the Harden way won't get it done in the playoffs

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When James Harden addressed the media following the team's exit from last year's playoffs, he said he knew exactly what the team had to do in order to get better and go further going forward. Not soon after that GM Daryl Morey pulled the trigger on a trade to acquire Russell Westbrook for a package that included Chris Paul and several draft picks. After the trade was finalized and Westbrook was introduced in Houston, Harden, head coach Mike D'Antoni and Westbrook all said the offense would be a work in progress and that the team would work together to find the right balance between its two best players while trying to define the roles all the players would be counted on to play.

Harden and Westbrook have been quick to say they don't care about individual statistics and that team's success is the only objective for the season. 23 games into the season there are still more questions than answers for the Rockets as James Harden hasn't changed one thing about his game, while Russell Westbrook has tried to adjust his skill set to fit the Houston offense while shooting less and trying to do more in other areas of the game. The team has shown flashes of brilliance and moments of embarrassing failure as they try to figure out how they get better on both ends of the floor. One thing seems certain if they don't change the way they play and the offense they run, as well as their effort effectiveness on defense, they will once again find themselves on the couch watching the conference finals come this summer.

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No matter what James Harden says or has said, statistics and individual accomplishments are important to him and to this point in his career they are what has defined him and his Hall of Fame-caliber career. The same numbers that have put him in the elite company of names like Chamberlain, Jordan, Kobe, and LeBron are also the same stats that are holding him back from accomplishing what all four of those greats did and multiple times in their career and that's winning an NBA title. While Harden has said all the right things about sacrificing stats for more team accomplishments, he has done just the opposite.

All his numbers have gone up or maintained similar averages as he logged a season ago, as he continues to etch his name in the Rockets and NBA record books. The team as a whole still relies on Harden, and he spends a majority of every game with the ball in his hands. More times than not, the rest of the team stands around and watches while the Beard does his thing. As we've seen in the past, that's a formula that can work in the regular season but fails miserably in the playoffs.

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Westbrook has struggled to find his niche since getting to Houston and doesn't seem comfortable with his shot since joining the Rockets. The skills that have won him an MVP and allowed him to average a triple-double for multiple seasons while in Oklahoma City seem to be put on a back burner as he defers to his buddy James. When Russ is really at his best he is relentlessly attacking the rim and running the fastbreak at a feverish pace. Especially from three-point range, which you can't do in a Mike D'Antoni offense, as well as still taking too many mid-range jumpers which are a huge no-no in the Houston system.

The tempo right now is too slow for Russ, and he isn't getting enough opportunities to run in transition, drive downhill and attack the basket. Westbrook is paid too much and is far too talented to be a casual observer on the wing, watching Harden do his thing. There is still time to tweak things and fix the offensive issues and it's important to notate that things aren't broken, they just aren't clicking on all cylinders. To his credit, Russ has been a consummate pro, has remained patient and continues to facilitate when he has the ball while distributing the ball to open teammates.

In order to maximize his talents, the team needs to play faster, get the ball in his hands in the transition to push the tempo and attack the rim every chance he gets. James can still handle the ball and run the point in their half-court sets to maximize his strengths, but he needs to defer to Westbrook when the Rockets get the ball in the open court.

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One final point that needs to be made is that both Harden and Westbrook need to put more effort into the other end of the floor. The team as a whole has struggled mightily on defense as they have fallen out of being one of the top 10 defensive units in the NBA like they were when they were coached by Jeff Bzdelik just a few seasons ago. With that said, it all starts with the teams' dynamic duo, who set the tone with their energy, communication and willingness to engage in getting stops. The effort is key on "D" and the Houston backcourt tandem has a tendency to relax on defense, sometimes failing to rotate and far too frequently electing to skip getting back in transition, so they can argue with officials over calls they did not get.

Houston is not a very big team and aside from PJ Tucker is not very physical, so they have to play outstanding team defense, rotate, hustle and contest shots. There is no reason why these two world-class athletes can't join Tucker, Clint Capela and a wing-like Eric Gordon or Danuel House to form a lockdown unit that can get stops at key times like the lineup two years ago that had Trevor Ariza, Chris Paul, Capela, Harden, and Luc Mbah a Moute. To be fair, both guards do an outstanding job rebounding the basketball and defending the low post, but they have to do more and be more consistent and focused on the perimeter, individually and in the passing lanes defensively if this team is going to make a long playoff run.

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This week the NASCAR cup series heads to the world center of racing, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, for the inaugural fourth of July version of the Brickyard 400. This is unprecedented for NASCAR considering over the course of 50 years they are usually in Daytona around this time. While this move was met with a lot of criticism from fans, there is a positive to come from this move though, as the sport will hold their first doubleheader with Indycar. This has been talked about for many years and now it has finally come to fruition. Another new facet of this weekend will be the Xfinity Series running on the road course configuration. This could very well lead to the cup series transitioning from the oval to the road course next season should everything go well when the Xfinity series does it. It will definitely be an interesting weekend.

Last week, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin dominated the first-ever doubleheader at Pocono. The two drivers finished first and second in both races with Harvick taking race one and Hamlin winning race two. Both of these races came down to pit-road strategy as Harvick was able to eke out a victory by taking two tires and fuel while his teammate Aric Almirola took four. The next day Denny Hamlin pretty much had the whole field covered as he went on to claim his fourth victory of the season. Overall, the idea of two races in a weekend went over well but for the racing itself, it was hard to watch. One of the main issues I had was how the drivers didn't have to shift this week. In my opinion, that was what made this track so unique. It was an oval that had road course characteristics and it usually produced some pretty good finishes. Hopefully this will be addressed when the new car makes its debut in 2022.

One of the big stories going into this week is the announcement a couple of weeks ago that NASCAR will be moving their all-star event to Bristol Motor Speedway. Over the past couple of weeks, there has been a whirlwind of news from the Bubba Wallace story at Talladega, to the doubleheader races last week. A lot of this has put this announcement on the back burner but this is a huge story. The race will be held on Wednesday, July 15th as NASCAR continues with midweek races. This is the first time since 1986 that the race will not be run at NASCAR's home track in Charlotte back when it took place at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The format will be pretty much the same as all the winners from 2019 and 2020 will all have an automatic birth into the race while the rest of the field will run in the open event the day before. The main event will feature four stages including a 15 lap closer around one of NASCAR's most popular race tracks. I think this move was long overdue and I hope that they continue with it in the future. Don't get me wrong, there isn't anything wrong with the race at Charlotte but I think a change of pace would be welcomed. I look forward to seeing how this turns out.

As we move on to Indy this weekend, the driver I have winning is Kurt Busch. This weekend will be the 2004 Cup Series champion's 700th career start, and he's won just about every race that there is to be won except this one here at the Brickyard. This week, that is going to change. It hasn't been the most consistent season for the Vegas native, but he still sits tenth in points and right in the thick of the playoff battle. This track isn't his best as he currently has a 19.42 average finish, including a dismal 30th place finish last year. But this week, I think he gets back on track with a victory as he starts second. The veteran has flown under the radar this year, but he has definitely shown spurts where we think he is going to break-out. He also has runs where it seems like him and his team are mid-pack, but there aren't many drivers out there that have the experience he has. And a talented driver like him always finds a way to bounce back. Look for Kurt Busch to take the #1 Monster Energy Camaro to victory lane.

All stats and information used in this article are brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Reference.com, the best websites for all NASCAR stats.

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