Is the Thunder better or worse without James Harden?
Coming out of the All-Star break, OKC heads to Houston to face the Rockets and Harden, who played a big part in the team's success the past few seasons.
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Thunder at Rockets
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Toyota Center, Houston
TV: Fox Sports Oklahoma (Cox 37/HD 722, DirecTV 679, Dish 445, U-Verse 754/HD 1754)
Radio: WWLS 98.1-FM, WWLS 640-AM
Three things to know
* This is the third and final meeting between the Thunder and Rockets. Oklahoma City won the first two games by an average margin of 26 points.
* Houston currently is the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
* The Thunder went 8-6 in the 14 games prior to the All-Star break.
What we know at this point is the Thunder's effectiveness has endured without Harden through the team evolving into more of an equal-opportunity offense. Last year, with each of its stars being heavily reliant on having the ball in their hands to be most successful, the Thunder ranked last in assists at 18.5 per game. This year, the Thunder's 21.9-assist rate ranks 14th.
It's a reversal that's been led by the remaining two All-Stars. Durant is averaging a career-high 4.4 assists, while Westbrook's 8.1 assists per game are only a shade shy of his career high.
“I didn't think that with a player leaving I'd have to take a bigger role on,” Durant said. “But I accepted it. Coach wants me to handle the ball more, he wants me to rebound more, be more of a leader, and I think I'm doing those things right now. Hopefully I continue.”
There is nothing Durant can do to improve the Thunder's bench scoring, which has seen a severe drop off in Harden's absence. Last year, the Thunder's bench ranked seventh with a 5.1-points scoring differential. This year, the Thunder's bench ranks 17th and has been outscored by 1.1 points on average.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks in mid-November began playing Durant at the start of the second quarter in an attempt to buoy the bench. Durant has helped but hasn't kept the Thunder completely out of the woods in those stretches.
That's why a spread-out attack has been vital. The Thunder has been at its best when multiple players get involved and become threats to score, as evidence by the team's 17-1 record when five players score at least 10 points.
To that end, Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka both have stepped up in the absence of Harden and contributed career highs in scoring.
For now, it's helped cushion the blow of the loss of the reigning Sixth Man of the Year. The Thunder is banking on that balance doing the same in the playoffs.
“We know that in order to win a championship you can't win with just one or two guys,” Durant said, before pausing. “Or three.
“It has to be a whole group effort.”
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