Without Durant, Harden believes it's his time to lead Team USA
With Kevin Durant sitting this one out and Paul George on the mend, James Harden believes it's his time to fill the void on Team USA.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A day after a bonding experience at West Point, Team USA reconvened Tuesday at the Nets' practice facility -- still located, for now, in New Jersey -- to resume preparations for the FIBA World Cup.
It's a very different team than the one that won gold at the 2012 Olympics in London -- a very different team, even, than the one that convened in Las Vegas last month to begin a month-long run-up to its gold-medal mission in Spain.
"We've only been with this group for four practices and an exhibition game," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "The four practices in Vegas were centered around a team with [Kevin] Durant on it. This group's still evolving."
After Kevin Love, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge begged off, after Paul George's gruesome leg injury, and after Durant's decision to sit out this round of international play, the dynamics have changed. Expanded roles are there for the taking. New sources of assertiveness and leadership are needed.
In Team USA's 95-78 victory over Brazil in Chicago on Saturday, the new blueprint was on display in all its depth and fury. With Derrick Rose looking like an MVP again, and with Anthony Davis controlling the paint, Team USA's personality began to take shape. There are two more exhibitions in New York this week -- against the Dominican Republic on Wednesday and Puerto Rico on Friday -- before the Americans head overseas. World Cup play begins Aug. 30, with the round of 16 scheduled for Sept. 6-7 and the gold medal game Sept. 14.
In the search for the scorer's mentality and leadership chops that Durant took with him when he left the team earlier this month, one man stands out. He just happens to be the most distinctive member of the team, in more ways than one. James Harden, who once played third fiddle to Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City and who barely played when Team USA won gold in London, is eager to fill the void.
More important, he's eager to prove that he's worthy of the task, in much the same way he was when he was traded to Houston two years ago and went from sixth man to All-Star.
"I think these past couple of years have prepared myself for this situation, seeing how I can lead a team in the Rockets," Harden said Tuesday.
And what has experience taught him?
"That I’m capable of leading a team," he said. "Obviously, I’m still learning; I have a long way to go. But the first couple of steps are going to be good."
Even in the absence of its biggest Olympic stars -- and with this summer's defections and George's injury -- Team USA has plenty of weapons. (Though he struggled in the exhibition victory over Brazil, Rudy Gay is a capable replacement for Durant.) But like any team, this one needs a focal point -- someone who can take over a game, get his own shot, make everyone around him better. Harden believes it's his time.
"In Oklahoma City, I had a little leadership role, but I was the sixth man," he said. "I didn’t have the majority of the say-so. Now, it’s prepared me in my game, being a leader, being able to talk to my coaches and better myself and coming out here and having confidence as a leader to kind of talk and communicate."
Harden seems to enjoy talking and communicating, seeing as he told ESPN.com's Scoop Jackson in a story published Monday that he's the best player alive. Uh, what? Someone hook that beard up to a lie detector.
But sheer talent is not what Team USA is about. Three more players, including Harden, could fall off the face of the Earth, and the Americans would still win gold in Spain.
Talent is not the issue. Attitude, work ethic, assertiveness and leadership are. If Harden is willing to be the one to step up and provide those things, in the absence of George and Durant, then more power to him.
"I've just got to be a little bit more aggressive ... and I’m talking about aggressive offensively and defensively," Harden said.
(If this implies that Harden is going to try on defense, then this is good.)
"Just picking up my intensity, picking up my leadership," he said. "I’m not really worried about scoring the basketball, but really just being in attack mode on offense."
Just as he was on a team led by Durant and Westbrook, Harden is best suited to international play in a role that provides instant offense and playmaking off the bench. On a team with bigger stars, that would be perfect for him.
In the absence of those stars, more will be demanded of everyone. And if you ask Harden's starting backcourt mate, Stephen Curry, the mentality has to change, too.
"We’ve got to be the hardest working team," Curry said. "We’ve got to be kind of nasty and grimy around the paint, because we’re undersized when it comes to the best teams in the world. But we feel like our strengths can exploit what other teams do."
They can, and will. Just with different leadership.
"I love James," Krzyzewski said. "We have a great, great relationship. And that communication between the two of us could translate to even better communication with the guys on the floor. ... Since Kevin left, he's asserted himself even more."
In the next breath, though, when asked how that dynamic has changed, Krzyzewski put an end to the Durant line of questioning.
"You know, I’m through talking about Kevin," he said. "Kevin’s gone. We never think about Kevin. We’re done with that, is what I’m saying. We’re onto this group. What a coach does, a coach coaches who he has, not who he doesn’t have.
"Everyone’s role changes a little bit when you lose players," he said. "Sometimes what they do changes a role, too, for somebody else. We have hard-working guys. They played their butts off against Brazil. And that’s the key thing is to continue to play hard, like we did against Brazil, and not think that we’re just going to win. And if we can keep that mentality going forward, then we’ll mesh."
With a new guy leading the way.
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