For all the ground Rockets guard James Harden had covered, he knew the next step would be the toughest. More than that, it will be the most important.

He went from excellent to elite, from special to a star. He was an All-Star for the first time, broke records and took the Rockets further than had seemed possible and back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season.

Yet, as the Rockets open the postseason Sunday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team that had dealt him to the Rockets where he grew into one of the NBA's top players, he knew becoming the sort of player who can lead a team to a title remained the most difficult and career-defining test.

"That's the key," Harden said. "If you look back at it, two years ago when Dirk (Nowitzki) was playing his best they beat us and … the Heat in the Finals. He was playing phenomenal. Last year, LeBron (James), what he was doing, how they won the championship. It's whoever can get hot at the right time. That's the most important thing, whoever can get hot and carry his team.

"I'm a basketball player. I'm going to go out there and play my game no matter what. I've done it thus far with this team. I've brought them along with me. We'll see. It's going to be another test for me. I'm obviously new to this role. It's a new test for me, and I'm looking forward to it."

But the Rockets have no doubt the 6-5 Harden, 23, can become the sort of player who carries a championship team. More than in any sport, the championship of basketball is tied to the best player of the moment, the member of that exclusive club of elites who elevates himself and his team to greatness.

The Rockets do not have that sort of team. There are steps Harden must take to be that sort of player. But the Rockets are committed to building around him, and not just because of the five-year, $80 million contract extension that kicks in next season.