MINNEAPOLIS â€” Scott Brooks has tried almost everything to encourage second-year swingman James Harden to be aggressive on the offensive end.
The Thunder's coach has spent timeouts summoning Harden to shoot the ball and has resorted to sign language during play â€” relying on a visual shooting motion to get his point across.
So there is no confusion, Brooks, a righty, even uses his left hand when motioning for his southpaw to shoot.
â€œHe knows it drives me crazy,â€ Brooks said. â€œI've never had the luxury of a coach wanting me not to hesitate on my shot. So I don't know how that works. All I know is when he's aggressive and quick with his decisions, he plays better. And when he's hesitant, you don't know what to expect.â€
Though it took a month, Harden is starting to show signs of supplying the assertiveness the Thunder needs from him. The 2009 No. 3 overall pick spent the first 18 games of his second season in a sizeable sophomore slump, averaging just 7.2 points, or 2.9 fewer than his rookie output.
But entering tonight's game at Minnesota, Harden has averaged 15.3 points in four December games. While Harden's shooting percentage from the field is still in the dumps â€” at 34.9 percent over the past four games and 36.1 percent for the season â€” his recent aggressiveness suggests he could be on the verge of finally canning shots with consistency.
At Chicago on Monday night, Harden had at least four hard drives to the basket. His attacking put pressure on the Bulls defense and led to a season-high-tying nine free throw attempts, boosting his average in that category in this month to a career-high 7.5.
â€œHe's a good player and he has to continue to be aggressive,â€ Brooks said. â€œWe need him to be a playmaker. But sometimes the ability to make plays for yourself is just as important as the ability to make plays for others. And James seems to always want to look for his teammates while passing up opportunities to score or take a good shot himself.â€
Harden's slow start had become one of the Thunder's biggest surprises this season. After showing all-around skills as a rookie, Harden was expected to return more confident and complete in his second season. But ask Harden why he sputtered out of the gate and not even he can provide a logical answer.
â€œThat's a great question,â€ Harden said. â€œIt's one of those things that I guess every guy goes through. It's a long season. So I'm just trying to bounce back out of it and try to keep putting that extra work in to where I can just play hard and go out there and make plays.â€
Harden has benefited from Brooks recently calling a few more plays for him. But it took a while for Harden to adjust to additional responsibility. Harden averaged just 7.6 shots last season while playing off of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Jeff Green. But when Durant and Green were both sidelined with injuries, Harden was asked to double his attempts.
Now, partly because of that stretch, Harden said his confidence is coming around as he continues becoming more comfortable as a scorer.
â€œHe has to be our guy off the bench,â€ said Durant. â€œIt's a lot of sixth men in the league that come in and gives their teams that spark. And that's what he needs to do. He's a scorer and a playmaker. He's got to be more aggressive. That's what everybody's been telling him. He's taking that to heart now by going out there looking to get easy baskets.â€
Harden's 40.3 percent shooting clip from behind the 3-point line ranks second on the Thunder behind Eric Maynor. But of the players with at least 30 3-point attempts, Harden leads the team.
It's as good of a sign as any that Harden has the ability to knock down shots and that his early slump should be short-lived.
â€œI'm confident when he takes them,â€ Brooks said. â€œI want him to take 3s because it helps our spacing and it helps our team â€¦ And if he's open for a 3, he has to let it fly and shoot it with confidence.â€