The Thunder faithful gave James Harden a rousing and ringing ovation before the game.
It was the highlight of his night.
Going against his old team for the first time since an October trade sent him to the Rockets, The Beard struggled mightily. Struggled like he did when last he wore a Thunder uniform. Struggled so much you almost felt sorry for him.
No wonder the Thunder routed the Rockets, 120-98.
Harden scored 17 points but needed 16 shots to get there. If not for a 9-of-11 performance from the free-throw line, he wouldn't have reached double digits.
“It felt good just to be competing against those guys and finally get this over with,” Harden said. “To play here and get it over with.”
Does this make it a little easier to see Harden in Rocket red, Thunder fans?
Thunder fans are still clearly attached to Harden.
The first half dozen folks who entered the arena Wednesday night made a beeline for the tunnel where the Rockets come out. They lined up for a chance to see Harden up close, maybe snap a photo, maybe even get an autograph.
Most were in blue. Durant jerseys. Thunder shirts.
What was clear, though, was that they were all there for Harden. Most didn't seem to pay any attention to the other Rockets making their way to and from the locker room.
Not even Jeremy Lin got a cheer when he came onto the court.
Other fans weren't so loving toward Harden. There were plenty of signs that dismissed His Hairness. “Don't Fear The Beard.” “Spear the Beard.”
Thunder super fan Thundor — his name is Garrett Haviland, but you know him as the big guy with the megaphone — had the sign of the night.
FEAR THE GREED, NOT THE BEARD.
Painted on his belly: an $80 million bill.
Then, there was Leola Boyd. Perhaps you remember her story. She is the 85-year-old Thunder lover from Okeene who fell particularly hard for Harden. She called our man Berry Tramel last month with a plan — rally Thunder fans to donate to the Thunder and supplement the team's contract offer to Harden.
She's on a fixed income, but she would give $40.
But before Berry could share Miss Leola's plan, Oklahoma City traded Harden to Houston.
Nearly broke her heart.
On Tuesday, Berry got a call from a woman who wanted to call Miss Leola. The woman wanted to get her from Okeene to Oklahoma City for the game, give her a Harden jersey and maybe even arrange a hug with Harden.
Miss Leola said that was the one thing she wanted to do after Harden was traded, give him a hug and say thanks.
The woman who called Berry acted like she could actually make all of those things happen for Miss Leola.
And she could.
She's Monja Willis — Harden's mother.
So, a little less than an hour before tipoff, in one of the back hallways of The Peake, Miss Leola met The Beard. She got one of his red Houston game jerseys, which she proudly wore all night.
“Very sweet lady,” Harden said. “Just bless her heart, she drove two hours to come watch me play. She was just so excited to be here.”
Miss Leola got her hug, too.
Several of them, actually.
“I think I wore him out before the game,” she said, laughing.
Maybe that explains what happened to Harden.
Even though there was very little manufactured fanfare — this wasn't Derek Fisher going back to Los Angeles; there was no tribute video — the drama was obvious. Not one but two television cameras followed Harden's every step before tipoff.
All eyes were on him.
What they saw wasn't pretty. He couldn't make jumpers. He couldn't finish at the rim. He couldn't do many of the things that made him into a star in Oklahoma City.
How bad a night was it?
Harden made only one more shot than the defensive-minded Kendrick Perkins.
“James loves Oklahoma City,” Houston interim coach Kelvin Sampson said. “He loves his teammates. He loves his fans. He loves what they did for him in the NBA. He had a lot of things swirling through his head.”
Harden pressed more than your neighborhood dry cleaner.
Worse for Harden, the boys in blue treated him like any other visiting star once the ball was tipped. They hounded him. They double-teamed him. They blocked his shots halfway to Okeene.
Six of his 13 misses were blocked.
He didn't make a single shot in the first half. Eight attempts. Zero makes.
Did he know this wasn't The Finals?
“I think he had to experience this,” Sampson said. “Sometimes, you've just got to go through the moment.
“The next time when he comes here, it won't be his first time back.”
But Wednesday was.
It was a night he'd just as soon forget.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.