Harden, Houston Rockets focused on improving defense after first-round playoff exit in 2014



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HOUSTON — James Harden was the target of plenty of criticism for his defense after the Houston Rockets were bounced from the playoffs in the first round last season on a last-second shot by Portland's Damian Lillard.

Harden finished fifth in the league in scoring with 25.4 points a game, but was chided for his defense. There was even a YouTube video devoted to his subpar defensive skills that got almost 1.5 million views.

Harden addressed his defensive shortcomings on the eve of the start of Rockets camp on Monday and knows he'll have to improve to help Houston to the next level.

"I know I can be a really good defender," he said. "Obviously at times my defense is pretty bad. And there are a lot of stars whose defense is pretty bad sometimes. But in that category I know I have to be better. For us to reach our potential it's something that has to be done."

General manager Daryl Morey pointed out that Harden is far from the only person who needs to do more in that area.

"We want to be a better team come April than we were last season," Morey said. "The season is probably going to come down to our defense. We need that to be championship caliber."

He believes that Houston's early exit from the playoffs will help motivate the team this season.

"Losing in the first round was disappointing for all of us and still hurts," he said. "We don't want to go through that again."

The Rockets missed out on nabbing a big-name free agent when Carmelo Anthony stayed in New York and they also lost Chandler Parsons to Dallas in free agency. But the team should get a boost on defense with the addition of Trevor Ariza to play with Harden and Dwight Howard.

Ariza also added his thoughts about Houston's biggest deficiency.

"I thought they were a really good team last year, scored a lot of points, didn't really do too much on the defensive end, but that takes time," he said. "Hopefully we can focus on both ends instead of just one."

Howard enters his second year in Houston after meshing nicely in his first season following a difficult one-year stint with the Lakers.

He loves playing with Harden and took issue with the negative things that were said about his teammate this offseason. He spoke often with Harden during the break and reminded him to stay positive.

"A lot of people were saying things about his play ... but I believe in James," Howard said. "I think he's going to have one of his greatest seasons to date."

Harden was an All-Star for the second time in 2014 and was named All-NBA 1st team for the first time. He raised eyebrows in August when he responded to the question of: "Who's the best basketball player alive right now?" by saying "Myself."

He didn't back down from that statement on Monday.

"I wasn't saying that to be cocky," he said. "I just put so much hard work and effort into my craft ... that's how I feel and I'm just confident."

Howard is happy that Ariza and 37-year old guard Jason Terry have joined the team and thinks they'll help him provide leadership on what was previously one of the youngest teams in the NBA.

Though Howard isn't shy about speaking up when necessary, but prefers to lead by example.

"Something that I learned last season is that you have to expect a lot from yourself," he said. "We have to expect greatness from ourselves first before we expect it from anyone else."

The Rockets open the season Oct. 28 against the Lakers in Los Angeles.

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