Friday September 25th, 2020 10:46PM

D'Antoni: Harden not only MVP, but most improved, too

By The Associated Press
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HOUSTON (AP) — Houston coach Mike D'Antoni thinks James Harden should win a second straight MVP award.

The veteran coach also believes the Beard should take home another award, too.

"I don't know if he'll get MVP, he should in my opinion," D'Antoni said. "But he definitely should get most improved player because he's improved his game."

It's daunting to think: Harden is actually getting better. And there are plenty of numbers to back it up as the Rockets prepare to play the Warriors in the Western Conference semifinals starting Sunday.

A year after Harden became the first Rocket to win MVP since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994 when he led the team to the first of two titles Harden has improved in almost every statistical category.

He raised his scoring average from 30.4 to 36.1 points lead the NBA, upped his rebounds from 5.4 to 6.6, improved his steals from 1.8 to 2.0, raised his free throw percentage from 85.8 to 87.9 and made 4.8 3-pointers a game after averaging 3.7 a year ago.

And those numbers don't even take into account how much he's improved on defense and the skill with which he uses his step back 3-pointer.

Never lacking in confidence, Harden wasn't surprised that D'Antoni's thought he could be called the league's most improved player a year after winning MVP.

"It's true," he said. "Every year I try to come back better. I try to come back and find ways to be more impactful than I was the year before and I think I was this year. And hopefully next year it will be the same thing. To try to go up as high as I can until I'm done."

Some criticize Harden's game because they believe he relies too heavily on drawing fouls and piling up chunks of his points at the free throw line. The Rockets scoff at that notion and even one of the Warriors disputed that theory.

"He can do everything," said Golden State's Kevin Durant said, a former teammate in Oklahoma City. "If you're not focused, he can drive past you, hit you with the shoulder because he's strong, finish with either hand. He's shooting floaters now. Obviously the step back 3-pointer is one of his staples, but I never really believed he was just a free throw guy. He can score in a variety of ways."

Another quality which people believe puts Harden in a league of his own is his ability to adjust to any defense and figure out ways to play around it. The Jazz tried several tactics to try and corral Harden in their first round series with Houston, but he still averaged 27.8 points as the Rockets won in five games.

"He's like artificial intelligence," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said during the series. "His ability to dissect and recognize different situations, particularly spacing, and they do a great job with him."

Though Harden led Houston in scoring in every game in the first round, he didn't shoot particularly well in the series, especially in Game 3 when he set an NBA playoff record by missing his first 15 shots. If the Rockets hope to finally knock off the Warriors in the postseason this year they know that Harden will need to continue that improvement D'Antoni raved about. Houston has been eliminated in the playoffs by Golden State in three of the last four seasons including last year in the Western Conference finals.

"You're never satisfied, you never get too comfortable," Harden said. "I watch film, I'm in the gym. I work on my conditioning. I study moves. I try new moves I just don't do the normal."

Harden isn't simply trying to be the best player in the game today. He's focused on leaving his mark as one of the best the league has ever seen.

"That's one of the things you dream of when you're a little kid on the playground outside, to be one of the best basketball players ever," he said. "So that's what I strive for and that's what I'll continue to go (after) until I retire."

A boost to that legacy would be to help Houston win its first title since 1995. Though Harden won't look too far ahead, he knows that great players are often judged on how they perform in the playoffs and he's determined to do all he can to get the Rockets past the Warriors and give them a shot at that elusive championship.

"It's very important," he said. "Obviously, championships are important. But I'm just taking it one game at a time. That's all I worry about. I let everything fall in place where it needs to be."


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