After advancing to the Western Conference Finals in 2015, the Houston Rockets started 4-7 last season, fired Kevin McHale, promoted J.B. Bickerstaff, finished 41-41 and lost in the first round of the playoffs.

It was, by and large, a lost season.

“I think last year was such a tumultuous year,” Houston Chronicle columnist Jenny Dial Creech said on CBS Sports Radio’s After Hours with Amy Lawrence. “When you lose a coach that early on and you bring up an assistant who maybe wasn’t quite ready, he wasn’t mentally prepared. I think he did a good job for the situation he was thrown into, and James Harden was a different guy last year. He knows it, and he’ll tell you. He’s said it publicly many times. I think that there was just a lot going on. I think everyone in that franchise just embraced this year as a fresh start and a fresh year.”

Harden averaged 26.6 points, 7.6 assists and 5.2 rebounds last season, but the Harden-Howard experiment simply didn’t work.

“I personally liked Dwight Howard,” Dial Creech said. “He’s a very friendly guy. I felt like he was good for the locker room, for the young guys in a lot of ways, but it didn’t quite work with him and Harden. I don’t think that it was dramatic like some of the other sort of spats you see across the league, but it wasn’t flowers and rainbows all the time, certainly. So I think they both moved on. It works out really well for both guys involved and both franchises involved. I think Atlanta liked having Dwight Howard involved, and I think the Rockets are a little better off just making James Harden the guy. So I think it worked out for both parties, and you don’t see that a lot. A lot of times there’s a lot of drama like Westbrook and Durant. You didn’t get a lot of that here.”

This year has been decidedly different for Houston (55-27), which finished with the third-best record in the NBA, and Harden, who averaged 29.1 points, 11.2 assists, 8.1 rebounds and had 22 triple-doubles.

If not for Russell Westbrook’s 42 triple-doubles, Harden would be a no-doubter MVP.

“What Westbrook has done is simply amazing, and there’s not making away from that,” Dial Creech said. “But you have to wonder if Harden didn’t have what he has around him, he’s pretty close to averaging a triple-double, too. Would he have done it? But he didn’t have to. He had enough around him; Westbrook did not. So in this first-round series, I think it’s going to be incredibly entertaining. We get to watch the top two MVP candidates go head-to-head for what I think will be maybe six games. We could see it stretch out to seven. Russell Westbrook is good enough, and Oklahoma City has the front court that the Rockets don’t. That’s a tough matchup for them. So this could extend.”

Game 1 is this Sunday in Houston at 9 p.m. ET.

“On paper, the Rockets should win it pretty quickly, but I don’t know,” Dial Creech said. “We could see it go on. And when you get to see Harden and Westbrook go head-to-head night after night after night, you can’t really ask for more in a playoff series.”


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