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James Harden believes the Rockets are being targeted with physical play

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The Rockets are feeling the pressure of being a contender early on this season.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Lakers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden is already feeling the pressure of being the league’s wins leaders last year, as he feels the Rockets are being “targeted” early this season.

Houston has had a bumpy start out of the gate this season, winning only one of its first three games. They got crushed by a New Orleans Pelicans team that many thought they’d defeat, and a Clippers team that a contender like the Rockets should be cruising by- granted, it was without Chris Paul.

Harden believes the reasoning behind these early competitive games isn’t hidden: they’re a team to beat.

“For sure,” Harden said, via USA Today, when asked if teams are playing more physically against Houston. “The success we have been having- obviously we haven’t won a championship yet- but the way we have been playing we have done pretty well.”

Even in their solitary win against the Los Angeles Lakers, the infamous fight broke out, causing three different players to be suspended, one of them being the Rockets’ Chris Paul. It seems like teams believe these games against Houston are ones to show who they really are, and hopeful contenders, like the Lakers, aren’t just going to roll over.

The Rockets know this, and they know they have to be prepared.

“So whenever we are at home and teams come to our home court, or we are on the road, they get up for us so we have got to be ready for that,” Harden said. “They play harder, they play a lot more confident. We just got to figure it out.”

When it comes to being prepared, I believe the Rockets need to do at least two simple things:

One, they have to play defense. If teams are going to get at them early and often, then the Rockets have to make them work at both ends. When the opponent isn’t feeling challenged on offense, and they’re able to get to their spots and score just like the coach drew it up, then they have just that much more energy to pressure on defense. They can’t keep up the intensity all game, and it’s in the fourth quarters when championship contenders, like Houston, show that they’re better than the Clippers and Lakers of the world.

Secondly, don’t ever stop playing Rocket ball. When teams are playing more physically, they’re not playing basketball; that’s not “Xs and Os.” They want Houston to come out of their scheme and not play their game. If the Rockets become more interested in retaliation or matching physicality, they’re not playing their game and they’re more prone to making mistakes and creating lapses on both sides of the ball. When your way works, they’ll do anything to keep you from playing your way.

Carmelo Anthony put it best- this is a process that takes time, and the Rockets will learn how to make their opponent’s approach work for them.

“(Teams) can target us, but we got to get better. We all know that. It is an early three games, we will get better, we will figure it out as the season goes along. We know what is at stake, we know what we want, we know what we got to do. [...] Anything new doesn’t happen and doesn’t come together overnight.”