LOS ANGELES — The great Willis Reed, who served as a sensei for us NBA novices in the Hornets’ two Oklahoma City seasons, offered all kinds of wisdom about pro basketball.
Including this one: Role players don’t travel. Stars are stars be they home, road or on the moon, went Reed’s theory. But the blue-collar, help-out, fill-a-niche players who are so reliable in friendly confines? Best not count on them in road games. Which brings us to the Staples Center tonight, when the Thunder seeks to knock down the staggering Lakers and set up a wild West Friday with a chance to pull an epic series upset back at the Ford Center. Could happen, if rookie James Harden disproves Willis Reed. Harden has been the starkest difference between the Thunder’s two losses in LA and its two victories on Reno. Harden has been like Seinfeld’s girlfriend: hideous one day, gorgeous the next. In both Staples Center games, Harden went scoreless, a difficult feat for a man averaging 9.9 points a game. The Thunder sixth man missed five shots combined and had one assist, one rebound and one turnover. The turnover was embarrassing; Kobe snatched the ball from Harden like a bully taking lunch money. Harden looked lost. Worse, he looked scared. Scott Brooks played Harden barely 16 minutes in Game 1, less than 10 minutes in Game 2. But back in OKC, Harden had 18 points in Game 3, 15 points in Game 4. Harden kept the Thunder afloat in the first half of Game 3, when the Lakers threatened to blow open the game. Harden’s numbers were primo: 54 percent shooting, 62.5 percent 3-point shooting, 14-of-16 from the foul line, totals of 10 rebounds, seven assists, four steals and one turnover. That’s one heck of a homestand. Harden had gone from role player to on-a-roll player. And if the Thunder is to knock off the Lakers tonight, or in a Game 7 at the Staples, Harden has to show. The Boomers don’t have enough offensive firepower for their fourth-leading scorer to go bellyup. Brooks has heard the role-players-don’t-travel theory and doesn’t even dispute it. "That’s usually been the history of the league,” Brooks said. "In fairness to James, I didn’t play him many minutes.” In fairness to Brooks, if he had played Harden more, the Lakers might have won in two blowouts, rather than tightly contested affairs. When Harden is playing well, the Thunder offense hums.