MILWAUKEE — James Harden nodded in agreement, as if he understood each time his teammates and coaches yelled at him from the bench. He tapped his chest and mouthed to them, ‘My bad.’
Then, the Thunder’s second-year shooting guard would make the same exact mistake. And the cycle would repeat itself again and again Saturday night.
How Harden continued to abandon his assignment was amazing. His instructions were simple.
Shoot the ball.
For the first time this season, Harden reminded us in the Thunder’s 82-81 win over Milwaukee what he can do whenever he just points, aims and fires. He scored a team- and season-high 23 points on 6-for-13 shooting. All six of his field goals were from beyond the 3-point arc. And he needed only eight attempts from downtown to collect his tally.
Now imagine the damage Harden could have done had he decided against passing up so many opportunities.
Harden was hot against the Bucks. He made three of three 3-pointers in the first quarter alone, needing just 9 minutes, 19 seconds to set his season-high for 3-point makes. But too many times Harden refused to play ball hog and ride his hot hand. Not only was it inexplicable, but it hurt his team.
Harden turned down at least three quality looks from the perimeter against the Bucks, each moment of reluctance manifesting itself the same way. Inevitably, the Thunder’s better ball movement made its way into the hands of a wide open Harden. But rather than take what the defense was giving, Harden made things more complicated. He put the ball on the floor or looked to make the extra pass, which ended up being just that, extra.
And each instance was met on the bench with slumped shoulders and hanging heads.
“He knows it drives me crazy,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “I’ve never had the luxury of a coach wanting me not to hesitate on my shot. So I don’t know how that works. All I know is when he’s aggressive and quick with his decisions, he plays better. And when he’s hesitant, you don’t know what to expect.”
Harden has been hesitant throughout much of this season. And, like Brooks said, it’s made it nearly impossible to know what to expect from Harden from game to game.
Harden needed a breakout performance in the worst way. After averaging 9.9 points last season, Harden entered Saturday night contributing just 7.6 points per game. He’s averaged fewer rebounds and assists, as well, while also shooting a lower percentage than last year’s clips from the field and 3-point line.
That’s what made Harden’s performance against the Bucks so perplexing. Rather than ride his momentum, using this one night as a potential vehicle for personal change, Harden played passively. At the same time, when the light did flicker those eight times, it suggested Harden isn’t far off. It provided a preview of what might be in store for this team’s putrid 3-point shooting, and it gave us a glimpse of why many projected the 2009 No. 3 overall pick to be an impact player playing a starting role by now.
“It was good to see,” Brooks said. “James has worked really hard in the off-season, and he’s worked hard all throughout training camp and the season. He hasn’t had a stretch where he’s shot the ball as well as he’s going to shoot. But that has improved lately the last couple of games. He’s a big part of what we do. We like when he’s aggressive and he makes plays for our team. We like when he doesn’t hesitate on his shot.”