There was no denying Harden on Wednesday.
Harden worked his way to the foul line and manufactured points in transition. He went five-for-five from the free throw line in the first quarter alone and threw down a fast-break dunk off a Danilo Gallinari turnover to cap a 10-1 run that put the Thunder up 29-10 with 47.4 seconds left in the period.
After the Thunder took a 31-15 lead into the second quarter, Harden helped his team surge to a 12-2 spurt that put Oklahoma City ahead 43-17, its largest lead of the night. Harden hit two 3-pointers off assists from Collison and Eric Maynor and converted a technical foul free throw following a Nuggets defensive three-second violation.
Harden was clearly more effective playing with the second unit.
“They're looking for me to be much more aggressive with the basketball as a scorer,” Harden said of when he's in with the reserves. “When Kevin and Russell come back in, I have to just pick my spots on the offensive end.”
Harden's teammates didn't have to tell him anything after Game 1 other than keep shooting.
“The other night didn't really mean nothing,” Maynor said. “We knew tonight he'd show up and make shots. That's what he does on a daily basis.”
The dilemma is in figuring out how to get Harden to coexist better while flanking his All-Star teammates. Rather than being reduced to a spot-up shooter, it seems a key to the Thunder continuing to roll is in putting Harden in positions to be just as aggressive with Durant and Westbrook on the floor. But Harden said he will never force the action.
“That's not my game,” Harden said. “I'm not the type to be selfish. We have two All-Stars on the team, and I'm willing to play my role.”
On Wednesday, as Denver double-teamed Durant and Westbrook more frequently, Harden was able to get into a rhythm attacking as the defense focused its attention elsewhere.
Harden just took advantage.
“We got him the ball in places where he could just attack and go,” Collison said. “He's best when he can just attack, and he's able to do that when we can make the defense slide from one side to the other so he can have a lot more space.”