NBA Power Rankings: Celtics, Bucks on top of Thanksgiving edition

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It’s the Thanksgiving edition of the NBC Sports weekly NBA Power Rankings, and in this one we talk a little about what each fan base should be thankful for this year. Spurs fans, you should be thankful for Gregg Popovich.

 
Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (13-4, Last week No.1). Boston has to be thankful for coach Joe Mazzulla, who has struck just the right tone with this team after being thrust into the head coaching position days before training camp. He didn’t try to reinvent the wheel, trusted what had been built and what these players had worked on, and struck the right tone. The Celtics are now home for six straight with some interesting tests: Luka Doncic and the Mavericks (Wednesday) and the red-hot Kings on Friday.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (12-4, LW 2). Milwaukee has to be thankful for the return of peak Brook Lopez, who leads the NBA in total blocks (44) and blocks per game (2.8), and who has played at a Defensive Player of the Year level. He is the reason they have the second-best defense in the NBA. Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 30.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists a game, but some people don’t see him as a top-five MVP candidate so far because his two-point shooting has fallen to 57% this season. Really?

 
Suns small icon 3. Suns (11-6, LW 4). Phoenix fans should be thankful Devin Booker is their anchor. This team has gone 4-3 without starters Chris Paul and Cameron Johnson because Booker has been phenomenal this season, averaging 27.6 points a game, shooting 38% from 3, and dishing out 5.8 assists daily. Cameron Payne also deserves credit for stepping up with CP3 nursing a sore heal. The Suns get the two upstart teams in the West, the Jazz and Kings, in some interesting tests this week.

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (11-6, LW 6). Be thankful for a front office with Koby Altman (and an owner) willing to go all in on Donovan Mitchell because it has worked out (29.8 points and 6 assists a game). He has been better than advertised, and with Darius Garland (23.9 points and 7.8 assists), the Cavs may have the best backcourt in the league. The one thing that would keep them from that crown is Garland’s turnovers. A couple of good tests to see where this team really stands in the East coming up with games in Milwaukee and Toronto.

 
Jazz small icon 5. Jazz (12-7, LW 10). A little wind has come out of the sails as the Jazz have dropped 4-of-6 but Jazz fans have to be thankful that Lauri Markkanen has found himself and been maybe the biggest surprise in the NBA this season. He’s averaging 22.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, shooting 36.1% on 3-pointers, and he looks like the hometown All-Star in Salt Lake City. It’s not the offense that has been the issue of late, it’s the 28th-ranked defense over the last six games. Will Hardy has to come up with a way to get some stops for this team.

 
Mavericks small icon 6. Mavericks (9-7, LW 5). Dallas has taken its foot off the gas — and Luka Doncic has looked a little low on gas — in some ugly losses lately (Pelicans without Zion Williamson, Magic without Paolo Banchero, Wizards without Beal or Porzingis). It’s concerning long term that this team needs an MVP night from Doncic to have a chance against the best teams. Mavericks fans need to be thankful that Spencer Dinwiddie is doing as much as he is to be the No.2 shot-creating option on this team (17.1 points and 5.1 assists a game, shooting 40.7% from 3), as Jason Kidd clearly isn’t leaning into Christian Wood because of defensive concerns.

 
Clippers small icon7. Clippers (11-7, LW 13). The Clippers are thankful Kawhi Leonard is back, and they are 3-0 since he returned to the starting lineup. They are top 10 in the league in offense and defense in those games (Leonard is out Wednesday night with an ankle issue). Tyronn Lue has said he wants to build an offensive identity of” drive, touch the paint, kick, swing” and we started to see that when they hit 21 3-pointers against the Spurs. Their front office and coaches talked about the return of Leonard as meaning it was time to drill down and start building good habits, and even with Paul George and Luke Kennard out there are some promising early returns.

 
Kings small icon 8. Kings (10-6, LW 16). Kings fans need to be thankful for The Beam — it’s a rallying point the team has bought into, and it has them winning six in a row. The other reason for the winning streak (and another reason for Kings fans to be thankful) is the team has gone against the easiest schedule in the league so far this season. That will change, but right now the Kings are doing what playoff teams do and beating the teams they are supposed to beat. And they are lighting the beam.

 
Pelicans small icon 9. Pelicans (10-7, LW 12). So much of the focus on this team is whether Zion Williamson is in or out of the lineup, but even with the changes New Orleans has the fourth-best net rating in the NBA for the season. It helps to pick up quality wins when the Warriors sit everyone you can name in both games in the Big Easy, but still those count as wins. New Orleans fans should be thankful for Brandon Ingram finding his 3-point shot — 48.2% on 4.3 attempts per game this season, a big leap for him that helps open up the court.

 
Blazers small icon 10. Trail Blazers (10-7, LW 7). Losers of four in a row and now they will be without Damian Lillard a while longer (while heading into a tough road stretch: at Cleveland, then both New York teams, then the Clippers at home). Trail Blazers fans should be thankful for Jerami Grant, who has fit in beautifully playing next to Lillard and is scoring 19.6 points per game while shooting an unsustainable 47.1% from 3. Grant remains a much-needed plus defender on this team as well. He has been worth every penny as a pickup.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (10-7, LW 3). Denver stumbled with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray in health and safety protocols, but the bigger questions are how long they can keep winning with a bottom 10 defense. Nuggets fans should be thankful for the play on that end of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who remains a much-needed plus defender on the wing. Fun measuring stick game Friday at home against the Clippers, who are surging of late.

 
Grizzlies small icon 12. Grizzlies (10-8, LW 9). Memphis fans should be thankful for the health and return of Jaren Jackson Jr. — it’s only been three games but their rim protection is much better, plus he has provided some offensive versatility scoring 18 a night. Ja Morant missed only one game with his Grade 1 ankle sprain, and clearly he was fine dropping 34 in the loss to the Kings. One of the biggest long-term questions the Grizzlies have to answer is how to strike a balance that can keep Morant on the court — he’s an aggressive, attacking player with insane hops and history suggests though kinds of players battle injuries (think Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose). Morant will push through, but the Grizzlies must find a way to keep him healthy long-term.

 
Pacers small icon 13. Pacers (10-6, LW 19). This might be too low a ranking for a Pacers team where everything is going well (winners of four in a row heading into Wednesday). They are playing at one of the fastest paces in the league (18% of their possessions start in transition), they have a potential Rookie of the Year in Bennedict Mathurin, and Pacers fans should be thankful the team held on to Myles Turner because he is having one of the best rim protection seasons of any big in the league. With Tyrese Haliburton running the offense, there is no reason this team can’t sustain a playoff level this season.

 
Hawks small icon 14. Hawks (10-7, LW 8). Atlanta fans should be thankful for this optimistic sign: Two of the Hawks wins have come against the Bucks, which both times did have Antetokounmpo in the lineup. The surprising stat about this team is the lack of 3-pointers a game, they are making 9.2 a night, tied for last in the league with the Lakers. The Hawks aren’t taking them (28.7 a game, second-fewest in the league) and not making the ones they take (32% as a team). Trae Young is part of the problem, hitting just 30.4% of his 3s this season. The Hawks are 2-3 in their last five, but this bucket by A.J. Griffin gave them a dramatic victory.

 
Wizards small icon 15. Wizards (10-7, LW 18). Washington fans should be thankful for Kristaps Porzingis‘ health, he has played in all but one game so far this season and is giving them 20.4 points and 8.8 rebounds a game. They don’t win games like the one against the Heat without him. While Bradley Beal has been in seemingly constant trade rumors for years, there is some buzz around the league that the name teams are calling Washington about now is Kyle Kuzma. He’s averaging 19.1 points and 8.2 assists a game this season, and he has a player option for next season he is not expected to pick up, making him a free agent. If the Wizards aren’t going to pay up and re-sign him this summer, they may have to consider a trade.

 
Sixers small icon 16. 76ers (9-8, LW 11). Tuesday’s win against Ben Simmons and the Brooklyn Nets — done without Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey or James Harden — is something this team can build upon, a win that was about culture and depth, not top-end talent. The Sixers just played harder than the Nets. With three games on the road this week but against Charlotte, then two against the Magic, the 76ers could keep racking up wins and start to turn around a season that has been slow to start and gotten Doc Rivers seat warm. Embiid should be the first of the big three to return to the court, but the 76ers will not rush him.

 
Raptors small icon 17. Raptors (9-8, LW 14). Toronto has kept its head above water with Pascal Siakam out, having gone 4-4 so far in his absence. Despite a rash of injuries — which has become an unfortunate Toronto tradition — this team has the net rating of a 10-7 team, something that holds promise for what they might be if they can just get everyone healthy at the same time. They are home for three this week but no easy ones with the Nets, Mavericks, and Cavaliers coming north of the border.

 
18. Timberwolves (9-8, LW 24). After a disappointing start to the season, the Timberwolves have rattled off four wins in a row (including solid wins against the Cavaliers, 76ers and Heat) and they are playing better on both ends of the floor (top 10 offense and defense over those four). Anthony Edwards is attacking again and Minny is getting stops. With a relatively soft schedule coming up (Pacers, Hornets, Warriors, Wizards) a hot Minnesota team could get on a run and climb the ladder in the West that remains very compact (the Timberwolves sit at No. 10 as of this writing but are just two games out of first place).

 
Warriors small icon 19. Warriors (8-10, LW 17). It seems obvious, but Warriors fans should be thankful for the throwback, vintage, MVP-level season Stephen Curry is having so far: 32.3 points, 7.1 assists, 6.7 rebounds a game shooting 44.7% from 3 and carrying a ridiculous workload. Those Warriors fans can also be frustrated with the rest of the franchise for squandering his play, but there have been a couple of positive signs. They picked up a road win, for one. Second, a couple of strong games from Klay Thompson as he seems to be getting his legs back under him. They are not out of the mix in a tight West, but it will be challenging to string together wins this week against the Clippers, Jazz, Timberwolves and Mavericks.

 
Knicks small icon 20. Knicks (9-9, LW 20). Knicks fans should be thankful that Jalen Brunson has been even a little better than advertised, not just in raw numbers but in providing a steady hand guiding the offense and getting guys in position. As discussed in my podcast this week with Tommy Beer, the Knicks still feel like a team that needs to do something to shake up the roster at the trade deadline and that could mean shopping Julius Randle. Although the market for him may be limited.

 
Nets small icon 21. Nets (8-10, LW 21). The Nets got Kyrie Irving back, strung a couple of wins together and you started to think “maybe this team can figure it out,” Then they have maybe their ugliest loss of the season to the shorthanded 76ers on Tuesday. The Nets tried to build a contender, went through pain this summer to keep this potential contender together, and for what? Watching them now, we can all just forget them getting to the level of the Bucks and Celtics, instead we need to ask if they even get to the level of the Cavaliers? Hawks? Raptors?

 
Thunder small icon 22. Thunder (7-10, LW 23). Thunder fans need to be thankful for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — forget the need to tank for a franchise cornerstone, the Thunder already have the kind of player other teams tank and hope for. Gilgeous-Alexander is playing at an All-NBA, maybe bottom-of-the-MVP-ballot level averaging 31.1 points and 6 assists a game, shooting 39.1% from 3. His play this season may have Sam Presti and company speeding up the timeline for turning this team around, which is not a bad thing.

 
Bulls small icon 23. Bulls (7-10, LW 22). Billy Donovan called out his players before Friday’s game against Orlando, then benched Zach LaVine for the final 3:43 of it, with the game in doubt, trying to send a message. It worked the Bulls played maybe their best game of the season Monday beating the Celtics, snapping a four-game losing streak. Now Chicago heads out on a six-game road trip and if they don’t bring that Boston energy things could get ugly fast.

 
Heat small icon 24. Heat (7-11, LW 15). Miami has been ravaged again by injuries this season and it makes it difficult to say where this team truly stands — we haven’t seen them whole long enough to have an idea. Who is the only Heat player to start every game? Kyle Lowry (I didn’t see that one coming before the season). Their preferred starting five hasn’t started together since Nov. 1. What’s different from last season is that when guys went down the Heat leaned into players such as Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and the guys nobody knew about who Erik Spoelstra and company turned into solid role players. This season, there haven’t been those new guys. The other thing that is clear now, the Heat need the shot creation of Tyler Herro in the offense or they are a bit predictable.

 
Lakers small icon 25. Lakers 5-11, LW 27). Anthony Davis is on a tear — four straight games of at least 30 points and 15 rebounds — and that combined with a soft part of the schedule as the Lakers going 3-1 in their last four. LeBron James is set to return to the lineup Friday, and with the next two games against the Spurs, Los Angeles has the chance to go on a little run and start to turn their season around. If that happens, and Rob Pelinka looks at a West where no team has run away and hid, might he be more likely to go all-in on a move and try to give his team a puncher’s chance in the postseason? Should he?

 
Hornets small icon 26. Hornets (4-14, LW 28). The basketball gods are cruel. LaMelo Ball gets back on the court for three games before injuring the same ankle on a fluke play stepping on a fan’s foot. That happened just as the Hornets were getting Gordon Hayward back from his injury (he has 33 points across two games, shooting 50%). There have been other bright spots for Charlotte, such as the play of Kelly Oubre Jr. and Dennis Smith Jr., but it hasn’t been enough to earn more than one win so far in November.

 
Magic small icon 27. Magic 5-13, LW 25). Orlando has gone 3-4 with Paolo Banchero out due to a sprained ankle (he could return on Friday), but that includes having dropped 4-of-5. Still, Magic fans need to be thankful their front office went with Banchero because he is unquestionably the real deal, the kind of shot-creating franchise cornerstone they need. Franz Wagner also continues to play well, averaging 19.3 points per game (we’ll see how he responds emotionally to the German’s loss to Japan in their opening World Cup game).

 
Rockets small icon 28. Rockets (3-14, LW 29). On the bright side, the Rockets are forcing more close games this season, they have 10 clutch games (within 5 points in the final 5 minutes). The problem is they have the worst offensive net rating of any team in those minutes (71.9) — the young stars in Houston have not yet figured out how to score against focused defenses). The bright side, the thing to be thankful for in Houston, is the play of Alperen Şengun and Kenyon Martin Jr. so far this season. There is real promise there.

Pistons small icon 29. Pistons (4-15, LW 30). It may just be the silver lining, but Pistons fans should be thankful for the deep draft coming up next June. This team hoped to be thinking postseason not lottery, but with Cade Cunningham now out for an extended period of time, the Pistons may be the first team that had play-in aspirations to fully pivot to “Brick for Vic” (or whatever we’re calling the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes). The Pistons had lost eight in a row until they beat the Nuggets, but still have the Jazz and Suns left on this road trip.

 
Spurs small icon 30. Spurs (6-12, LW 26). Gregg Popovich on getting his team through a rough season focused on player growth: “You have to assess an individual’s development based on where they started from, and how much they continue to glean from whether it’s you know, practice or film or shootarounds, game situations, that sort of thing. So it’s about values and goals and that’s how you get through it. And beyond that, you kind of slap yourself. It’s really a tough life. I can’t pay my electric bill. The players can’t pay their gas bills and gas is too expensive for them to buy — come on, give me a break. You know, it’s the greatest job in the world. So if you complain, you’re an idiot.”

Watch Pacers’ rookie Nembhard drop 31, outduel Curry, lead Pacers past Warriors

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SAN FRANCSICO (AP) — Rookie Andrew Nembhard outshined the Splash Brothers on their home court.

Nembhard scored a season-high 31 points and added 13 assists and eight rebounds to lead the undermanned Indiana Pacers to a 112-104 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Monday night.

A second-round draft pick, Nembhard made a key 3-pointer with 4:26 to go and another jumper less than two minutes later.

“He was masterful tonight … 31 and 13, those are high lottery numbers,” coach Rick Carlisle said.

Indiana played without starting point guard Tyrese Haliburton for a second straight game as he nurses soreness in his left groin.

Klay Thompson scored 28 points and made eight 3-pointers, moving up the NBA’s career 3-point list on the six-year anniversary of his 60-point masterpiece against the Pacers.

Thompson finished 9 of 23, but Stephen Curry was held to 12 points on 3-for-17 shooting. Jordan Poole scored 23 starting in place of Andrew Wiggins, who sat out with tightness of the adductor muscle in his right leg.

“No matter what we do, it’s going to be hard to guard these guys. We had some good fortune with them missing some shots they may normally make,” Carlisle said. “But our guys played with a lot of presence to start the game. We were switching a lot and everyone was tied together.”

Nembhard hit five 3s while Buddy Hield added 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists as Indiana snapped a three-game losing streak with just its second win in six games.

Nembhard and the Pacers hardly looked like a team playing the second game of a road back-to-back.

“He was hoopin’ and I think that starts in the first half for us,” Golden State’s Donte DiVincenzo said. “The guards have to get into it a little bit more.”

Golden State had its 10-game home winning streak snapped.

Curry went 1 of 7 in the first half, missing all four of his 3-point tries and was 2 for 10 from deep overall. Curry finally connected from long range with 5:13 left in the third after missing his first five.

The Pacers, missing six players with injuries or illness, jumped out to a 22-12 lead as Golden State started 5 for 17.

Thompson knocked down three straight 3-pointers – all from the right wing – to tie the game at 42 with 4:51 left in the second quarter before a Pacers timeout. Thompson also dished out an assist on Jonathan Kuminga‘s layup before his trio of 3s and nearly had another when Kuminga was fouled and made both free throws to cap a 20-2 run 3:40 before halftime.

Three things to know: On night of returns Harden rusty, Leonard hits game-winner

Philadelphia 76ers v Houston Rockets
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) James Harden was rusty, Joel Embiid fouled out, 76ers fall to Rockets in 2OT

Philadelphia picked a soft landing spot for the return of James Harden, on the road against his young and struggling former Houston team, followed by coming home for seven in a row.

This was not what Doc Rivers and company pictured.

For example, remember Harden was going to be a minutes limit? Rivers had him out there for 38 minutes in a double-overtime game, throwing him back into the fire in the overtimes because he had little choice.

Harden made four 3-pointers but was understandably rusty after missing 14 games with a strained tendon in his right foot, and he was 0-8 inside the arc. He missed an open potential game-winner at the end of the first overtime. Still, he made some passes and a shot or two that reminded everyone what he can do when he gets his legs back under him — and why the 76ers need him.

Combine that with Joel Embiid feasting early on the undersized Rockets inside, and Sixers fans could see a path to a comfortable win.

However, the underlying problem that did them in was looming — Houston was attacking the rim, drawing fouls, and living at the line. The Rockets got 15 free throw attempts in the first quarter, a trend that would continue much of the night.

The Rockets hung around and hung around, getting 27 points from Jalen Green, while Kevin Porter Jr. added 24. And they kept drawing fouls, eventually fouling out Joel Embiid in the first overtime. When the Rockets hit a couple of 3-pointers to open the second OT, they took control and got the win, 132-123.

Harden’s return should eventually boost the 76ers bottom 10 offense, but what this team really needs is to get healthy (Tyrese Maxey remains out with a foot injury) and to string together a few wins. They start a seven-game homestead Friday against the Lakers (not the best time to catch Anthony Davis and company) and that would be a chance to right the ship. And get out of the play-in level they are at right now.

2) Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return, until the game was on the line

The Clippers followed the 76ers model for the return of their stars — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both returned to the lineup against an injury-plagued and struggling Hornets team. A nice soft landing spot…

That turned out not to be as soft as imagined.

As expected playing just his sixth game of the year, Leonard looked rusty in his return, starting the night 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

Then he hit two buckets in the final minute that got the Clippers the win.

The first was set up by an impressive hustle play from Paul George, who saved a ball going out of bounds to Leonard under the basket for a shot that tied the game.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner. That is vintage Leonard, using his strength to get to his spot and then calmly draining the shot.

If you’re looking for positives in Los Angeles, the Clippers showed some resilience and grit in getting the win. Leonard finished with 16 points and George looked sharper with 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. Clippers’ role players stepped up.

The Clippers need their stars to stay healthy and on the court, and to build some chemistry. Traditionally 20 games into the season we know who a team is, but this year’s Clippers are the exception to that rule. Their role players and a strong defense have kept the team’s head above water (14-11 on the season), but they need their stars back to turn around their 29th-ranked offense. Then we can see if they have the potential to be a threat in the West or not.

3) Pacers rookie Andrew Nembhard outduels Stephen Curry, Pacers win

Yes, you read that right.

While Bennedict Mathurin has been the Pacers’ rookie garnering most of the attention (and some early Rookie of the Year talk), Andrew Nembhard has been showing out of late. Monday night he had 31 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and hit some key shots late to fuel the Pacers’ 112-102 upset win over the Warriors.

With Tyrese Haliburton out (groin injury), Nembhard — the four-year college player from Gonzaga who was taken No.31 in last year’s draft — showed he knows how to run a team and knock down a 3 (he’s shooting 42.9% from deep this season).

The Pacers also won because it was just an off night for Stephen Curry: 12 points on 3-of-17 shooting overall and 2-of-10 from 3. It felt like a night where the Warriors looked at the Pacers’ inactive list for the game — Haliburton, Myles Turner, Chris Duarte, T.J. McConnell, Daniel Theis, James Johnson — and thought they would cruise to a win. Do that against NBA players and you pay the price.

Because guys like Andrew Nembhard can flat-out play.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Today is Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s 28th birthday. What does he want? What are his plans? And why is he doing his postgame media session with Homer J. Simpson? There are a lot of questions.

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.