HOUSTON -- The heavy burden on James Harden's shoulders, a major factor in the MVP runner-up's miserable finish during last season’s Western Conference semifinals, had been eased as far as the Rockets' front office was concerned.
No longer would Harden feel the pressure to create possession after possession after possession now that he had a perennial All-Star backcourt partner. Chris Paul's summer arrival in Houston meant Harden's minutes could be managed much easier and would be significantly less taxing than last season.
Paul will be sidelined for weeks, maybe as much as a month, due to the bruised knee on the left leg that he dragged around for 33 minutes during his Rockets debut this week. That leaves Demetrius Jackson, who is on a two-way contract, as the backup point guard while general manager Daryl Morey searches for budget-friendly upgrades for that role. Houston will clearly err on the side of caution with Paul, whom the Rockets recruited with May and June in mind, not October and November.
In the meantime, D'Antoni will attempt to exercise some caution with Harden, albeit not at the expense of the 3-0 Rockets continuing to rack up wins.
Plan A is pretty simple: Blow out opponents and allow Harden to root on his buddy Bobby Brown and other Rockets reserves in the fourth quarter.
"We need to knock people out," D'Antoni said.
Mission accomplished against the outmanned Mavs, as the Rockets' lead ballooned to as large as 36 points before Dallas got the best of the extended garbage time. The 0-3 Mavs were an easy mark: a bad team playing the second night of a back-to-back without sensational rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr., starting shooting guard Seth Curry and key reserve Devin Harris.
Harden kind of cruised to 29 points and seven assists in less than 30 minutes. There are a lot of nights that Harden has to take a beating to fill up the box score, but this wasn't one of them. He bullied itty-bitty Mavs guards Yogi Ferrell and J.J. Barea to get into the paint some, but Harden did a lot of his damage from 3-point range (6-of-13) and uncharacteristically didn't earn many trips to the free throw line (3-of-4).
For the record, Harden has no interest in discussing the possibility of fatigue from his responsibilities in returning to last season's workload while Paul recovers. Harden swatted away a question about how his mentality changes without Paul playing next to him.
"It doesn't," Harden said. "Just make plays, score the ball and play the right way."
The addition of Paul wasn't the only offseason change made to protect Harden from wearing down over the course of the season. Harden is significantly sleeker after a summer of hard work. He won't get into specifics about his weight -- "Can't give you all that," he said, a grin peeking through his beard -- but he says he still plans to drop a few more pounds.
Harden temporarily having to carry the same burden as in previous seasons isn't the biggest concern about Paul's extended absence. The Rockets have had to press the pause button on the process of their pair of future Basketball Hall of Fame point guards learning how to play off of each other -- a major adjustment for Paul in particular, considering that he has never played off the ball in his career.
"We're trying to understand where we are offensively," D'Antoni said. "I wish Chris could be here, so we can keep getting better."