IT WOULD be hard to find a bigger fan of Houston Rockets swingman James Harden than 76ers coach Doug Collins. During Harden's time at Arizona State, Collins, who owns a house in Scottsdale, was a frequent visitor to practice and formed a special bond with Harden.
It was during that time that Collins gave Harden the most valuable piece of basketball advice that he would ever get, one that has helped him win the NBA Sixth Man Award with Oklahoma City last season and become one of the league's premier scorers with the Rockets this year.
"I told him he needed to get a motor," Collins said. "He had no motor in college. None. All of the sudden he goes to Oklahoma City and he gets with [Kevin] Durant and he gets with [Russell] Westbrook and he gets with Jeff Green and he gets in that gym and he works and he gets in that strength and conditioning and he devotes himself."
Collins probably wished on Wednesday that Harden would have had a lapse in memory about their many talks, as he torched the Sixers for 33 points, 19 of them in the first half and 17 from the foul line, as the Rockets handed the Sixers (12-14) their fifth consecutive loss, 125-103.
Possibly even worse than the loss, Evan Turner had to leave the game early in the third quarter after rolling his left ankle. He was in some serious pain as he limped to the locker room. He returned to the bench later, his ankle retaped, and played a few seconds before Collins pulled him after noticing his limitations. Turner then limped back to the locker room and didn't return after being diagnosed with a sprain.
"I don't know what happened," he said. "I went into the lane and it just bent. I tried to come out and play but it was just too stiff."
Houston (13-12) is a team enamored with the three-point shot, as it had hit 10 or more of them in 10 of its previous 18 games. But going against a Sixers defense that is more than generous to opponents inside the paint, the Rockets couldn't resist. They scored 56 points in the paint, shot 56 percent overall and, for the most part, found little resistance anywhere at the offensive end. They also drilled 11 of their 27 threes.
"We find ourselves in a rut," said the Sixers' Nick Young. "We're trying our best out there. We just have to come out with a sense of urgency and force ourselves to a win. Toward the end of the game, they weren't missing."
Even without Turner, the Sixers still managed to make a game of it in the third when a steal, slam and ensuing foul shot by Thaddeus Young cut the Rockets' lead to 72-71 with 5 minutes, 56 seconds remaining. But Houston finished the quarter on an 8-1 run that upped the lead to 10 and, with a limited bench and playing on the second straight night, made a Sixers comeback virtually impossible.
Dorell Wright, coming off a 25-point night in Dallas on Tuesday, led the Sixers again with 20 points. Nick Young added 18 and Thaddeus Young 17.
With point guard Jrue Holiday sitting out his fourth straight game with a sprained left foot, Collins changed his lineup and went with Maalik Wayns at the point. Collins wanted to take some of the ballhandling pressure off Turner, who had been logging major minutes in an out-of-position role. That didn't work out particularly well as the Sixers fell behind by 33-24 after the first quarter. Wayns didn't return to the floor until the fourth when the Sixers were shorthanded without Turner.
The defense was awful in the second half as the Rockets scored 69 points and shot 21-for-37. Fatigue seemed to ooze in the fourth as Houston, which posted its fourth win in five games, got wherever it wanted and drained some more three-pointers.
"If you take a look at a team like Houston, you can tell they're an analytic team because they've got all their guys shooting threes," Collins said. "They go with the percentages - take 10 threes and make three of them and the percentage is close to if you make five out of 10 from two. They spread you and stretch you."
And then there's that Harden fellow, who entered the game averaging 25.1, fifth in the league.
"I don't compare players by any stretch of the imagination, but to me, when he's coming down the floor with the ball, he's very similar to LeBron James," Collins said. "When you combine size, strength, speed and he loves contact. He seeks contact on every play. He can shoot the three, he has a great feel for the game."
Moses Malone watched the game from the front row across from the Sixers' bench.