James Harden remained silent early in the season about his reported desire for a trade, but in the aftermath of a 117-100 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday, the Houston Rockets star guard sounded off, expressing pessimism about his team's prospects for gelling this season after falling to 3-6.
"I love this city," Harden said. "I literally have done everything that I can. This situation is crazy. It's something that I don't think can be fixed. So, yeah. Thanks."
"I love this city. I've literally done everything I can. This situation is crazy. It's something I don't think can be fixed. Thanks."- SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 13, 2021
-James Harden on the Rockets pic.twitter.com/LcPLn09TgE
With that, Harden immediately ended his postgame press conference, but not before pointing out "we're just not good enough," as Houston struggled through its fourth loss in five outings in a game the Lakers won wire-to-wire and led by as many as 30 points. The setback marked the Rockets' second consecutive loss to the Lakers by a combined margin of 35 points.
Harden hasn't scored more than 20 points in four straight outings, his longest such streak since 2012.
James Harden hasn't scored more than 20 points in four straight games.- StatMuse (@statmuse) January 13, 2021
That's his longest streak since 2012 - his last season coming off the bench in OKC. pic.twitter.com/NKlzGb1lRx
"We're not even close, honestly, to that team - obviously the defending champions - and to all the other elite teams out there," Harden said. "You can tell the difference in these last two games. Obviously, chemistry, talent-wise, everything, and it was clear like I said these last few games. From the beginning of the game, they were just aggressive, veteran team, obviously, a championship team, and one of the best teams that we have in this league."
One play in the second quarter perhaps illustrated Harden's hopelessness.
Helplessly, Ben McLemore sprinted at LeBron James, as the Lakers star stood wide open in the corner.
James pumped, gathered, then hoisted the shot, immediately spinning to face the Los Angeles bench.
pic.twitter.com/cdhsmYoUss- Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) January 13, 2021
James never looked back to see whether the shot would fall, and metaphorically, the Lakers didn't either in crushing the Rockets. The Lakers scored a season-high 71 points in the first half on the way to their largest halftime lead of the season (23) with James pouring in 22 of his game-high 26 points.
"It doesn't feel good. It sure doesn't," Rockets coach Stephen Silas said. "They're obviously a together group, and they were having fun at our expense. It doesn't feel good at all, and we should take umbrage. It's like they're dancing on our home court, and we've just got to fight through it."
They'll also need to find a way to push through the internal strife dogging the team. Harden showed up late to training camp, but he wasn't cleared to work out with the team until testing negative for COVID-19 on six consecutive days. That forced Harden to miss the team's first two preseason outings.
Then the NBA postponed Houston's season opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder because the Rockets lacked the minimum number of available players required to field a gameday roster due to coronavirus protocols. Houston would open the season against Portland with limited options after listing six players on the official injury list as out while they advanced through the NBA's COVID-19 protocols. The Rockets played their first two games - both losses - with just nine players available, one more than the league's minimum eight players required to play a game.
Those situations no doubt slowed Houston's progress toward gaining cohesion with a first-year head coach in Silas leading a roster filled with several new pieces in John Wall, Christian Wood and DeMarcus Cousins.
Informed of Harden's criticism of the team, Wall initially declined to comment. But then…
"He's entitled to his own opinion," Wall said. "It's a lot of basketball to be played. We've only played nine games. Like I told everybody tonight, and I told the guys before: When the 1 through 15 guys all are on the same page, and committed, they know their roles, they know what they want to do, they know what they want to get out of this, that's to win, you all will be fine.
"It's only been nine games. Come on, man, you want to jump off the cliff after nine games?"- Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 13, 2021
John Wall on James Harden reportedly wanting out of Houston pic.twitter.com/rmevt9SntW
"But when you have certain guys in the mix that don't want to buy in all in one, it's gonna be hard to do anything special, to do anything good as a basketball team. In my 11 years I've been in the league, I've been on teams like that my first five years where it was all about me, me, me, me, not about the team. And that hurts, and it brings everybody down.
"So, if we can get all on the same page, we can be something good here. We can't dwell down on it because it's only been nine games. C'mon man, you want to jump off the cliff off of nine games? There's a lot of basketball still to be played."
The two losses to the Lakers certainly didn't inspire much confidence. By the start of the fourth quarter, Silas had already pulled all of Houston's starters. In fact, none of the top six in the Rockets' rotation played at all in the fourth quarter.
Silas admitted to being "surprised" the Rockets seemed unable to make a run against the Lakers.
"They hit us over the heard early in both games, and we weren't able to respond," Silas said. "That's not who we should be. We've got to be a team that as adversity comes, you respond in a way that you will meet that adversity with force. We're not doing that."
Silas stopped short of criticizing Houston's effort in Thursday's loss. Harden finished with 16 points on 5-of-16 shooting with six assists, while Wood contributed a team-high 18 points on 8 of 18 from the floor. No Rocket reached the 20-point mark for the first time since Dec. 6, 2018.
"I'm not gonna say there was a lack of fight or a lack of competitiveness," Silas said, "but we didn't bring the right intensity to the game. What we're trying to do with that first group is get them in the rhythm with getting the ball quickly, and we're not necessarily doing that, and making sure that we are on our defensive coverages, which we weren't.".
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