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Dave Feschuk: Harden and Leonard load up for NBA playoffs in very different ways

Dave Feschuk: Harden and Leonard load up for NBA playoffs in very different ways
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Seeing as James Harden was in town on Monday, putting in a workout before Tuesday’s game against the Raptors , it was a good time to ask the Houston Rockets scoring machine for his take on the NBA’s oft-maligned regular season.

You can make the case that nobody goes harder than Harden during the six-month grind that is the 82-game schedule. Since he came into the league in 2009, nobody has played more regular-season games than the Rockets lefty. Only LeBron James has played more regular-season minutes. The reigning MVP has been leading the league in regular-season scoring two years running. He’s been an all-NBA first-teamer four of the past five seasons.

James Harden and Kawhi Leonard, teammates at last month’s NBA all-star game in Charlotte, will square off when the Rockets take on the Raptors on Tuesday night at Scotiabank Arena.  (Juan Ocampo / Getty Images file photo)

To which Raptors all-star Kawhi Leonard might say: For what?

“It’s 82 games and for me these are just practices,” Leonard told reporters the other day, explaining his outlook on the league’s interminable October-through-April slate. “And playoffs is when it’s time to lace ’em up.”

Eighty-two practices — it’s that sort of view that probably helps explain why NBA TV ratings are down. But even if Leonard’s take is not likely to be the premise of a commissioner-approved marketing campaign coming soon, at least it’s brutally honest. So far this season Leonard has missed 17 of these 48-minute, surprisingly well-attended practices — more than a quarter of Toronto’s 64 outings — mostly on account of what the team has termed “load management.”

You probably know the gist of that story. Given that Leonard is coming off an injury-hampered season that led to the downfall of his relationship with the San Antonio Spurs and his trade to Toronto in the deal that sent away DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors are being beyond careful about keeping the impending free agent as fresh as scientifically possible.

Also, Raptors president Masai Ujiri is clearly sick of regular-season success and cares only about one thing: steering the Raptors to their first NBA title.

So does Harden, given all the wear and tear on his 29-year-old body, ever consider load-managing himself into a few more days off?

“For what?” Harden said.

Well, to save himself for the playoffs. After all, Harden has been to one NBA final and three Western Conference finals – including an epic Game 7 against the Warriors last spring — and he remains one of the best players of his generation yet to win a ring.

“No,” said Harden.

So he doesn’t occasionally ponder forgoing a night of high-volume stepbacks in favour of the recuperative comfort of a cushy courtside chairback?

“No,” Harden said.

Hmmm.

“I just love to hoop,” Harden said, finally elaborating. “I love to play basketball. Like, this time won’t last forever, you know what I’m saying? I embrace it. I enjoy the grind. I enjoy tired legs and having to find ways, and when your shot’s not (falling). Like I love (that stuff). That’s what makes me a basketball player.”

That’s the right answer, of course. The regular season, with its TV rights and gate receipts, happens to be a big part of what makes the NBA a multibillion-dollar basketball business. And it’s that kind of expression of affection for the nightly pursuit that will endear Harden to observers who believe it’s honourable and significant that, say, Michael Jordan played all 82 regular-season games in four of his six championship-winning seasons, missing a combined six starts in the other two.

The sport’s economy is built on the idea, illusory or not, that every game matters — that everyone who buys a ticket or makes the league appointment viewing is owed a reasonable facsimile of the state of the art. The Raptors have their reasons for ignoring that foundational principle this season. And hey, given that they’re 13-4 without Leonard in the lineup — this while holding down the No. 2 seed in the East — it hasn’t been a particularly difficult sell. (Kawhi, mind you, ought to give Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam a percentage for keeping the heat off by deftly holding down the fort.)

Speaking before Monday’s practice, Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said the Rockets, sitting in fifth in the West, have considered the merits of giving Harden more rest, too.

“Yeah, but he won’t allow it,” said D’Antoni. “I don’t know all the scientific stuff behind it. We talk about it a lot. We try to keep the minutes down.”

They try. But Harden is leading the league in minutes per game. On account of the MVP’s insatiable appetite for hooping, the coach said he’s decided it’s best to get Harden rest on the days when a game is not scheduled. So the Rockets will forego practice or skip the traditional morning shootaround — as they planned to do Tuesday — to limit cumulative fatigue. In other words, minutes per game and games played isn’t the only way to measure the management of a player’s load.

“So you’re telling me that if I’d have practice and shootaround and I play him two less minutes (in a game), then it’s better?” D’Antoni said. “What if we don’t have practice and James plays two more minutes? So you’re trying to trade it off. And if he needs an extra day or he needs a day off, we’ll give him a day off. But he will not ask for it.”

D’Antoni, for his part, will not join the long-assembled chorus calling for a shorter schedule.

“The owners are not going to, ‘Oh yeah, let’s cut down 10 (games off the schedule).’ And the players are not going to have it, either. ‘We’ll just pay you less.’ No, that’s not happening,” D’Antoni said. “So get used to it. It’s going to be 82.”

Eighty-two practices before they lace ’em up for the actual games.

“He’s right to a certain extent. I understand why he’s saying (that),” D’Antoni said of Leonard’s assessment. “But we’re just trying every game to be better. And in the playoffs, you can’t do that. You’d better be better or you’re out.”
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