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Even Rockets surprised by James Harden's greatest ability

HOUSTON -- When Mike D'Antoni interviewed with the Houston Rockets last summer, he met with team brass once in Houston and again at owner Leslie Alexander's home in Delray Beach, Florida.

D'Antoni pitched an idea that would either make or break his job pursuit: If he became coach of the Rockets, he would move James Harden to point guard.

Harden had played seven NBA seasons at shooting guard and was coming off a season in which he set career highs in scoring (29 points per game), assists (7.5) and rebounds (6.1).

But D'Antoni had been studying Harden's game and was convinced it was the right move to make.

"I told them I was [convinced], and then I wouldn't have gotten the job if he didn't want to do it, I know that much," D'Antoni said with a smile. "I'm sure they asked him, 'What do you think?' Watching him all last year, it just made sense."

D'Antoni found a receptive audience to his plan. Before D'Antoni interviewed for the job, Rockets officials had an idea Harden could indeed play point guard. For years, Alexander had wanted the team to play an up-tempo style where 3-pointers, layups and pick-and-rolls were the pulse of the offense. It was just a matter of finding someone who could bring it together.

The main concern expressed by Rockets officials was the potential physical toll it would take on Harden, who had led the NBA in total minutes the previous two seasons.

There also was some uncertainty about whether it would indeed work with Harden. Yes, the Rockets believed he was an excellent passer, demonstrated by his then-career high 7.5 assists per game the previous season, but could he really do this over a full 82-game schedule? Harden was used to having the ball in his hands -- he touched the ball 85.1 percent of the time last season -- but this was still a major change.

"He felt like James, being the best player, rather than be off the ball, he should be on the ball from the start," Rockets GM Daryl Morey told ESPN. "He wanted to utilize his talents. There was concern about the burden on James, but credit Mike, because he knows his system and he sold it to James."

Selling the move to Harden proved to be easy.

D'Antoni and Harden had worked together before. D'Antoni was an assistant coach with Team USA's 2012 Olympic team that won a gold medal in London, a team that Harden had played on as a 22-year-old. Harden and D'Antoni enjoyed chatting about basketball, never knowing they would be with the same NBA team one day.

"We've always had good talks about basketball," Harden said. "I've known him, and we have a good understanding of each other and what he wants on the basketball court."

For the past five seasons, Harden has carved a place in the NBA as one of its elite scorers. But it's Harden's ball-handling and passing skills -- he's devastating out of the pick-and-roll -- that make him so good. When he's not scoring, which was the case early in Game 1 of the Western Conference playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday night, he can impact the game in other ways.

Most assists as pick-and-roll ball handler

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