No one needed to say anything to James Harden.
When Jeff Green was dealt to Boston three weeks ago in the trade that brought Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder, Harden knew immediately that he needed to be more productive.
“We had to make up for those 15 points that we lost,” Harden said. “Everybody's level of play had to step up.”
Harden, though, shot up to a level few thought he could reach — at least not this quickly.
In 15 games since the All-Star break, Harden has averaged 17.7 points. That total trails only Dallas' Jason Terry for points off the bench over that span. Harden's 50.6 percent shooting over that same span, meanwhile, ranks fifth among shooting guards with at least 10 games played.
By comparison, Harden averaged just 10.3 points on 41.3 percent shooting prior to the All-Star break. The turnaround has transformed the second-year guard into one of the league's best Sixth Men.
“When we made the trade, I didn't go to James and say, ‘James, we need six more points out of you. And you need to do it or else you're not going to play,'” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “I didn't quite say it that way.”
Brooks simply encouraged Harden the way he always had — urging him to be aggressive, imploring him to shoot when he's open.
Green's departure, however, created an increased opportunity that would instantly lend Harden more leeway. Harden averaged 25 minutes prior to Perkins-Green swap. He's garnered five more per game since.
“Since the trade, he's played some good minutes,” Brooks said. “But he's earned them. He's played well. We weren't just going to give him extra minutes. I think that's a mistake sometimes the league makes. Guys get minutes that are not earned, but James earned the extra minutes. He's playing well. He's scoring, he's defending, he's rebounding, he's playmaking and it's all because of the work he's put in. It's well-deserved.”
Harden admits his confidence has grown to perhaps its highest level since joining the franchise as the No. 3 overall pick in 2009. One performance helped make that possible.
Two games into the post-Green era, Harden scored 14 points on 6-for-11 shooting against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. But more than his offense, Harden's defense — the end that has long held him back — created confidence. Harden tag-teamed with Thabo Sefolosha to limit Lakers All-Star guard Kobe Bryant to 17 points on 8-for-22 shooting. Bryant had a team-high four turnovers and shot 3-for-11 in the fourth quarter.
The Lakers won, 90-87, but Harden had turned the corner.
“Sometimes (my confidence) has been down because of me not shooting the ball well,” Harden said. “But at other times it's been great. I'm just trying to stay consistent and have fun while going out there and working hard.”
In the 13 games since the trade, Harden has been an immediate scoring spark. He's averaged 10.1 of his 17-plus points in the first half, often pumping life into the Thunder or enhancing an already solid start.
Harden repeatedly says all he's doing differently is being more aggressive.
Brooks, on the other hand, has made it a point to put Harden in better positions to score. Rather than utilize Harden as solely a spot-up shooter and an occasional mid-pick-and-roll threat, the Thunder is now running him off screens, searching for him in transition, putting the ball in his hands and allowing him to make plays more frequently and running designed backdoor sets.
The backdoor cut is becoming Harden's signature set.
Starting from the right wing or corner, Harden lulls his defender to sleep while either Russell Westbrook or Eric Maynor appear to be engaged in another set. At just the right moment, Harden dashes to the basket for a bounce pass or an alley-oop dunk.
“He has a good feel. He knows when to do it,” Brooks said. “I like the fact that he never fakes it. Early last year, he was faking backdoors and we were turning it over. He's aggressive with it and he's effective.”
There's not much Harden hasn't been effective at the last three weeks.
“We all believe in him, and he knows that,” said Kevin Durant. “And he's been playing defense very well these last few games. He's just playing hard for us. He's been working extremely hard and he's starting to see some of the benefits of it.”
SIXTH MAN AWARD WATCH
A look at the race for this year's Sixth Man Award.
1. LAMAR ODOM, L.A. LAKERS
Season stats: 14.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 3.0 apg, 0.7 bpg, 53.8 FG%, 38.3 3PT%, 32.2 MPG.
Notable: Because of injuries to Andrew Bynum, Odom has had to start for almost half the season. He still needs five more games off the bench to qualify for this year's hardware. But his all-around play has put him atop the list for the award.
2. JASON TERRY, DALLAS
Season stats: 16.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.1 spg, 45.3 FG%, 37.2 3PT%, 31.7 MPG.
Notable: His 15.9 points off the bench lead all eligible reserves. Terry's fourth-quarter scoring (6.3-point average) is in the top 10 for all players. He's scored 10-plus points in the fourth quarter 11 times this season. The Mavs are 9-2 in those games.
3. JAMAL CRAWFORD, ATLANTA
Season stats: 14.5 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 3.2 apg, 0.8 spg, 41.8 FG%, 33.9 3PT%, 30.4 MPG.
Notable: The reigning Sixth Man of the Year has seen his scoring, rebounding and efficiency plummet and his turnover go up. Still, Crawford remains the second leading scorer off the bench.
4. JAMES HARDEN, OKLAHOMA CITY
Season stats: 11.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.1 spg, 44.2 FG%, 36.1 3PT%, 26.6 MPG.
Notable: Since the All-Star break, Harden has averaged 17.7 points, just 0.2 points behind Terry for the league lead among players off the bench in at least five games.
5. THADDEUS YOUNG, PHILADELPHIA
Season stats: 12.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.0 apg, 1.1 spg, 54.3 FG%, 26.3 3PT%, 25.8 MPG.
Notable: Young has quietly been steady all season for a resilient Sizers squad. His scoring is down for the second straight season. But his efficiency is at an all time high. He's fifth in field-goal percentage.
OTHERS OF NOTE
Lou Williams (Philadelphia), J.R. Smith (Denver), Shannon Brown (L.A. Lakers), George Hill (San Antonio), C.J. Miles (Utah).