HOUSTON (AP) James Harden helped the Houston Rockets to their first division title since 1994 and the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs starting Saturday against Dallas.
But the MVP candidate isn’t content with what the Rockets have accomplished this season. Harden is ”very motivated” to do more this postseason after being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in each of his first two seasons in Houston.
”I feel like we’ve got a great opportunity,” Harden said. ”We’ve got the right guys in this locker room to get it done and go further than that.”
Seeded eighth in 2013, the Rockets weren’t expected to get past the Thunder, who beat them in six games, but being ousted by underdog Portland in the opening round last season stung a whole lot more.
The Rockets lost the first two games at home to the Trail Blazers before coming back only to lose the series on a last-second 3-pointer by Damian Lillard in Game 6. Houston had the lead with less than a second to go in that game before Lillard’s dagger at the buzzer.
Houston center Dwight Howard didn’t want to talk about that series much, preferring to look ahead. But he did discuss what he learned from it.
”Anything can happen in 0.9 seconds,” Howard said.
Coach Kevin McHale said there’s no sense in discussing last year’s early ouster and that what happened then has no effect on this postseason.
”You can’t play that game anymore and you can’t play that series anymore,” McHale said. ”You can’t do anything with that stuff, now it’s just about (Saturday) … If you drive in your rearview mirror you run into a lot of stuff in front of you – I’ve noticed that.”
This year they face a Dallas team that earned the No. 7 seed. It’s the first time they’ve met in the playoffs since Houston 4-3 in the first round in 2005.
Dirk Nowitzki, who was part on that team, isn’t sure how much of a rivalry it is anymore. But he added that the matchup might have gained a little intensity because of trash talk over the past year between Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Houston general manager Daryl Morey.
”It’s more a rivalry since Cuban and what’s his face went back and forth a little bit – Morey,” Nowitzki said. ”But I don’t think if you play a team once in the playoffs in 10 years, you can’t really speak of a rivalry. Both teams are in Texas. Both teams want to win the first round.”
Here are some things to know entering the series.
Howard has played nine games since missing almost two months with swelling in his right knee and is feeling good. The Rockets have been steadily increasing his minutes since his return and McHale expects him to play around 30 minutes early in the series.
”When I’m out there I’ve got to play hard,” Howard said. ”It doesn’t matter how many minutes I play. As long as I’m out there playing hard and dominating the paint we should have a great chance to win.”
Ten years ago Jason Terry was the starting point guard for Dallas against Houston in the playoffs. This year he’s starting for Houston against the team he won a championship with 2011. Terry signed with the Rockets this offseason hoping to return to the postseason and expected to provide depth off the bench. Instead, Patrick Beverley had season-ending wrist surgery, and the 37-year-old Terry was thrust into the starting lineup again.
”Good thing we’ve got a good group around me and it ain’t just me by myself,” Terry said. ”So I’m prepared.”
The Mavericks have five players on their roster with 10 or more years in the NBA, led by Nowitzki, who is in his 16th season. But Dallas coach Rick Carlisle isn’t sure they’ll have the edge in that area with Houston’s roster also featuring quite a few veterans.
”People are going to be trying to come up with things about who’s got the edge,” he said. ”It’s the team that creates the edge by playing the best. That’s what it’s going to be.”
Josh Smith started the season with Detroit before he was released and signed by the Rockets. Because of the timing of his change he was the only player in the league to play 83 games this season.
”I’m trying to see how that goes with the check situation,” Smith joked. ”I played an extra game – (maybe) I should get a little overtime.”
Smith played a major role for the Rockets when Howard was out, and has averaged 12 points and six rebounds off the bench in Houston. It’s a bit of vindication for Smith, who was derided for being a negative influence in Detroit when he was cut.
”I feel like it’s funny because people want to try to highlight negativity and not when things turn around,” he said. ”Us winning the division and me being on this team, it goes (unnoticed).”
WILL PARSONS PLAY?
Chandler Parsons hopes to play Saturday despite missing the last six games with a knee injury. Parsons is in his first season with the Mavericks after spending his first three seasons with the Rockets. Though he’s still friendly with many of the Rockets, Howard said that Parsons will be ”an enemy” in this series.