The instant he was traded from the Thunder to Houston on Oct. 27, fourth-year shooting guard James Harden went from being sixth man to being The Man.
His impact was immediate with 37 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and four steals in a debut win at Detroit. In his first NBA season as a starter, Harden finished fifth in the NBA in scoring at 25.9 per game and also averaged 5.8 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.8 steals.
As is the case with most players, Harden numbers were noticeably better at home.
Home: 26.5 ppg; 45.7 percent FG; 40.5 percent 3FG.
Away: 25.4 ppg; 42.0 percent FG; 33.3 percent 3FG.
Harden shot poorly at FedExForum (Memphis), EnergySolutions Arena (Utah), Pepsi Center (Denver), Oracle Arena (Golden State), American Airlines Center (Dallas) and Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Indiana), but there was no facility where he struggled more than his old haunts of Chesapeake Energy Arena.
In his lone OKC appearance this season, Harden missed his first nine shots, 12 of his first 13 attempts and had six shots blocked. Thunder players literally took turns rejecting Harden shots. In order, the shot-blockers were Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Hasheem Thabeet, Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Durant and Ibaka again. All told, OKC had 11 blocks, led by Ibaka with six.
Harden finished 3 for 16 from the floor with three assists, two rebounds and three turnovers on 39:27 of playing time. Was the Thunder’s success in that particular game because of how well OKC players knew Harden’s game, or was it far more personal than that? Was it about showing Harden he made the wrong decision not coming to terms on a contract extension offered by the Thunder?
“I think a lot of it just had to do with pride, so you’re going to lock in (defensively),” Perkins said. “Obviously, with the whole James thing, he probably wants to have a good game and we don’t want him to have a good game. That’s just how it is.”
That Nov. 28 contest at The Peake was the end of a long day for Harden and his teammates, so emotional fatigue likely played a factor. After beating Toronto the night before, the Rockets flew from Houston to Minneapolis after the game and arrived around 2 a.m. Later that morning, the 40-man travel party attended the funeral of coach Kevin McHale’s 23-year-old daughter, Sasha, who died from complications of lupus. The Rockets then flew to OKC, arrived at the arena around 2:30 p.m. and chose to remain inside the facility for the 7 p.m. tipoff rather than check into a hotel.
The Thunder’s past and current feelings toward Harden will be tested throughout this best-of-7 opening-round series, beginning with Game 1 today at 8:45 p.m. at The Peake (and televised on TNT).
“We’re not looking at him as a friend right now,” Durant said of Harden. “Of course, we all know him, but it’s Rockets versus Thunder. We want to come out there and stop whoever they put on the floor. It’s not about just James. They’ve got some players who can really play. We’ve got to do a great job as a group of stopping those guys. It’s far from just James. He’s an All-Star player. He’s going to make shots. He’s going to make tough shots, but we can’t get discouraged or hang our heads.”
Perkins added: “We’ve got to come out there and make sure we make it a physical game, put pressure on the ball playing our team defense. It’s not about trying to guard outside our body and worrying about if James is going to get off because he’s playing there. Whatever it is, play our type of ball.”
- John Rohde