Is the Thunder better or worse without James Harden?
Coming out of the All-Star break, OKC heads to Houston to face the Rockets and Harden, who played a big part in the team's success the past few seasons.
A familiar sight took the court to start the second quarter of Sunday's NBA All-Star Game.
When the West's five-man unit walked onto the floor, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kevin Durant comprised three-fifths of the lineup.
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Thunder at Rockets
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Toyota Center, Houston
TV: Fox Sports Oklahoma (Cox 37/HD 722, DirecTV 679, Dish 445, U-Verse 754/HD 1754)
Radio: WWLS 98.1-FM, WWLS 640-AM
Three things to know
* This is the third and final meeting between the Thunder and Rockets. Oklahoma City won the first two games by an average margin of 26 points.
* Houston currently is the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
* The Thunder went 8-6 in the 14 games prior to the All-Star break.
Just like old times.
It was the first time the former Thunder trio shared the court as teammates since the blockbuster October trade that sent Harden to Houston. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the well-known, three-headed monster scored the first nine points of the period for the West All-Stars.
“We're back together and it seems like we never left each other,” Harden said over the weekend. “We're brothers. Simple as that. We're always going to be brothers.”
But what will become of the Thunder?
Wednesday night, in its first game out of the All-Star break, the Thunder will face Harden and the Rockets for the third and final time this season. It's the 54th game of the season for OKC, but the jury is still out on whether the Thunder is better or worse without Harden. Like it or not, that's what the success of this season ultimately will be determined by, and we're still a ways away from arriving at the place in which we'll learn the definitive answer.
“The value of James Harden doesn't show in the regular season,” said TNT analyst Kenny Smith. “It's only going to show in the playoffs.”
That could be the biggest reason why the Thunder, strictly from a statistical standpoint, is better this year than it was a year ago.
Oklahoma City is scoring 112.4 points per 100 possessions, which leads the league and is 2.6 points on average more than last year's ultraefficient pace. The Thunder also has led the league in team scoring for much of the year, but its 106 points per game currently trails the Rockets by one-tenth of a point for tops in the league.
At 39-14, the Thunder's .736 winning percentage projects to eclipse last year's .712 mark, which stands as an Oklahoma City-era record for won-loss percentage.
More frequently than not, there have been nights like Feb. 8, when the Thunder scored a season-high 127 points behind a balanced team attack, that lead you to think this year's success is no fluke. But there have been times like last Thursday, when OKC's offense went stagnant against Miami and made it hard to believe the Thunder can assemble another deep playoff run without Harden.
“We're different, but I think we're just as good,” said Durant. “James, don't get me wrong, is a phenomenal player. But we lost him and we got back Kevin Martin, who's a really good player as well.”
Martin ranks third on the Thunder in scoring with a 15-point average. That's just 1.8 points shy of Harden's scoring output last season. Martin, however, averages 1.8 fewer rebounds, again an occasional sore spot for OKC, and 2.4 fewer assists. Harden's ability to generate scoring for himself and others is what the Thunder misses most.
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