Harden Triumphant in Return to the Valley

For James Harden, return trips to the Valley of the Sun have always been a mixed bag; from scoring 40 points as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012 to dropping a pair critical games late last season as the Houston Rockets made their push for a playoff berth. But in a potential first round playoff preview Harden helped lead Houston to a 115-112 win over the Phoenix Suns on Sunday night.

Harden entered last night tied for fifth in the NBA in scoring, averaging 24.3 points per game. Despite shooting just 6-15 from the field, the fifth-year player finished with 23 points and seven assists to go along with five rebounds and three steals while leading Houston to its ninth win in its last 10 games.

After guiding Houston to the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09 last season as the eighth seed, Harden and the Rockets began the year with a different set of goals. The addition of center Dwight Howard instantly added the Rockets into the discussion of title contenders and through the first two-thirds of the season; Houston has lived up to the hype.

The Rockets currently hold a one game lead over the Los Angeles Clippers for third place in the Western Conference standings and are just four and half games behind Harden's former team, the Thunder, for the top spot.

"We've gotten a lot better," said Harden Sunday night on his team's improvement since last season. "Each guy in that locker room has gotten a lot better. And then, of course, we've got the addition of Dwight, but we just need to focus on getting better every day.

"I've always said, 'I've just got to work, work, work,' and to have confidence. I think I'm also helping my teammates get better as well, so it's been good."

In just their first season playing together, Harden and Howard have already established themselves as one of the more formidable duos in the NBA, combining to average 43.1 points and 17.3 rebounds per game for the Rockets. Houston enters the week ranked third in the NBA in scoring offense (106.1), fifth in opponent field goal shooting (.438), and fifth in total team rebounding (45.3).

"To play with a young guy who has the opportunity to be one of the best in the game, it's amazing," said Howard on playing alongside Harden. "I'm happy to have a chance to come in and just talk to him, having been through all the situations I've been through as a player, and I can just guide him. Over the years I've experienced a lot, so me and him playing together is going to be great for both of us."

"The more we continue to work, the better off we'll be. It takes time, especially when you've got two guys that have been leaders on a team that come together and have to figure how to lead without, basically, trying to outshine each other and we're learning that."

Since being traded to the Rockets in October of 2012, Harden has undergone his own personal transition from being just a sixth man in Oklahoma, to the man in Houston. In his first full season as a starter last year, the former Arizona State standout averaged career-highs in points (25.9), assists (5.8), rebounds (4.9) and steals (1.8). He also led the NBA free throws attempted in 2013 (792) and free throws made (674).

He's followed that up by averaging 24.3 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game this year.

Harden was selected to his first NBA All-Star game last season as a reserve for the Western Conference before being named as a starter in this year's game, playing alongside former teammate Kevin Durant.

"I rely a lot on my work ethic," commented Harden on his rise to NBA stardom. "It's a different role but it's still basketball at the same time. The more I stay in the gym perfecting my craft, the more confident I'll be when I step on that court. The main thing for me now is just continuing that work ethic."

"I've been in his position before," added Howard. "I've been 'the guy' on a team and for me, I just want to do whatever I can to make his life easier on the floor so he doesn't have to work so hard and can just go out there and be who he is and shoot the ball and score."

And while Harden and the Rockets might be in the midst of a playoff and potential title run, the former Pac-12 Player of the Year says he still keeps an eye out for his alma mater to see how the Sun Devils are performing on the hardwood as well.

"Yeah, they're doing a great job," he said. "Jahii's been doing a good job leading that team and they've got a lot of players that are playing well. That was a great win against UofA and that's all that matters."

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