HOUSTON — So this is what it feels like, seeing him raise those hands and curl those fingers, watching him pop his jersey, enlarging the script of his hometown team, one you don’t root for, witnessing him bark at each and every one of your players and coaches after he rips your heart out more with each ensuing possession, all while you know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that there’s not a thing anybody can do about it.
This is the James Harden that Oklahoma City came to know and love. He’s the same player that was unceremoniously shipped to Houston last October for financial reasons and the same guy who has been lighting up the league ever since he joined the Rockets as their latest franchise player.
On Wednesday, after escaping his wrath in each of the first two meetings, the Thunder finally took its turn, falling 122-119 inside the Toyota Center as Harden hung a career-high 46 points on his former team.
Though he tried his best to downplay, if not downright deny, his performance having anything to do with the opponent, Harden’s energy on this evening told another story.
“It sure looked like it, didn’t it?” said Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin when asked if the game meant a little more to Harden. “We felt like we didn’t compete with them the first two games that we played against them. So this time out, we wanted to make sure that we did that and he had an incredible game. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything like that.”
Harden made 14 of 19 shots and nailed seven of eight 3-pointers. He also converted 11 of 12 free throws, including his final pair with 6.7 seconds remaining to give him his career high, one more than the 45 he scored at Atlanta on Nov. 2.
For good measure, he added eight rebounds, six assists, one steal and one blocked shot while turning it over only twice in 44 minutes, 14 seconds.
Afterward, Harden wanted you to believe that the win, the Rockets’ 30th this season, was all that mattered, that playing well coming out of the All-Star break was what was most important.
“I try to send a message every game,” Harden said when asked if that was his intent. “If you watch the other 50 games, I did the same thing.”
Not against the Thunder.
In the first two meetings, Harden averaged just 21 points and was held to 27.2 percent shooting. The Thunder rolled over the Rockets by an average of 26 points.
This time, Harden came out hot, making his first four shots, all 3-pointers, to score 14 in the first quarter. He knew then it was his game.
“I haven’t made four 3s all season in one game,” Harden said. “That kind of helped me out with my confidence, just to get it going early, not trying to really force it but getting my teammates involved and let everything else open up.”
Harden finished off the Thunder in the final period, when the Rockets rallied from a 14-point deficit by scoring 29 points in the final 7 1/2 minutes.
Harden scored or assisted on 16 of those points and watched his playmaking ultimately lead to assists by other teammates on two other 3-pointers.
“Anytime you play against your former team, that’s natural to feel a lot of pride against that team,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “It’s nothing personal. I’ve known him obviously for a while. He’s a competitor. He plays hard. He wanted to win the game.”