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James Harden on Houston Rockets: I've "opened up to my teammates"

By Alex Butler
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James Harden of the Houston Rockets is interviewed by journalists during a team practice. EPA/ROLEX DELA PENA
James Harden of the Houston Rockets is interviewed by journalists during a team practice. EPA/ROLEX DELA PENA

Jan. 17 (UPI) -- A bearded baller beckoned both boos and a chorus of MVP chants Tuesday at AmericanAirlines Arena.

Yes, James Harden was in Miami. And he managed to leave an impression on the rugged road crowd, despite a 109-103 loss to the Miami Heat.

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The NBA MVP frontrunner is making the Houston Rockets rev this season. Five All-Star selections in the bag haven't made him complacent. In fact, he's flourishing in his new role as the Rockets' point guard. Harden is averaging the second-most points per game of his career, while stashing career-highs in helpers and boards. His 11.7 assists per game lead the league.

"Being a leader on and off of the floor," Harden said about his veteran presence. "Setting really good examples, especially for the younger guys. I'm using my voice for more communicating. Just opening up...opening up to my teammates and that's allowing them to open up to me. We have conversations."

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Harden must be prioritizing his higher assists numbers like he does when he carefully selects his next beard oil. He didn't seem to know his rebounding numbers [8.3] were more than two boards higher than his previous career best.

"The only category that is probably way up is my assists," Harden said. "Just playing the point guard now and opportunities with the basketball in my hand from the beginning of possessions. That's on the rise. The other categories are about the same."

Tuesday marked the 13th time Harden has cashed in for a triple-double this season. He netted 40 points, pulled down 12 rebounds, and accrued 10 assists in the loss.

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"He's been playing well," Rockets guard Patrick Beverley said. "He's the best player in the NBA right now. He's playing at a high level. He makes everyone around him better. He's been having years like this, but we haven't been winning so you haven't been able to see it as much. But now that we've been winning, you see how really talented he is and he keeps getting better. As long as he keeps getting better it's good for our team."

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Beverley said Harden has been the NBA's best player since the duo became teammates in 2012.

"He's been playing at this level for a long time," Beverley said. "It's magnified now that we are winning. The things that he has been doing are not surprising because he's been doing it the last couple of years."

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When asked what Harden brought to the team Tuesday, Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said that he even helped hand out equipment.

"Besides the triple-double? He hands towels out," D'Antoni said. "Again, he just does...he's a mainstay and he's a playmaker and he just does what he needs to do. We didn't play well. We had guys that were banged up and got banged up during the game and didn't play well, against any NBA team. They were well prepared as usual and they played hard and they beat us."

With D'Antoni's arrival and a cast of new faces, the Rockets are revitalized.

"Just a fresh start," said Beverley, who scored a dozen points and had seven rebounds Tuesday. "We are a new team. New coaching staff. Acquired new players. We came down here for the summer and built that foundation down here."

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Beverley also said Harden is a unique "superstar."

"He's not like all the other superstars," Beverley said. "He doesn't sit out games for rest. If he's sick, he doesn't sit out games for illness. If he has a little injury, he doesn't sit out games for that. He's a thoroughbred. He goes out there and plays every night."

Harden, 27, led the NBA with 38.1 minutes per game last season. This season he's clocking 36.5 minutes per contest.

The Rockets [32-12] have now lost three of its last four games, heading into a Wednesday night contest against the Milwaukee Bucks. That game tips off at 8 p.m. from the Toyota Center.

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