LOS ANGELES — Before he became famous for the beard and the sweet stroke and the shifty moves, James Harden was just another kid on the playground at Audubon Middle School, doing what every other 11-year-old with hoop dreams did while growing up in the shadows of a dynasty.
Harden imitated Kobe Bryant.
“I would try to, but obviously it didn't work,” Harden said. “But I would try to. I would try to shoot my little fadeaway and things like that.”
Bryant, who partnered with Shaquille O'Neal to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to three straight NBA championships from 2000-02, was Harden's favorite player. Back then, Harden was a proud supporter of his hometown team.
“Oh yeah, I was definitely a fan,” Harden said. “It was fun watching Kobe and Shaq and (Derek Fisher) and all those guys. It was tough to beat them.”
Harden and fellow Los Angeles native Russell Westbrook now return to their roots looking to finish off their one-time favorite franchise. Game 3 between the Thunder and Lakers is Friday night inside Staples Center. Oklahoma City holds a 2-0 series lead.
“It's a rivalry,” Harden said of the Thunder and Lakers. “It's going to be some competitive battles out there on the court. Obviously we want to win. We're an up-and-coming organization that's trying to make a name for ourselves so it should be fun and a great series.”
The genesis of this budding rivalry is the 2010 playoffs, when the Lakers eliminated the Thunder in six games in the opening round before going on to win their second consecutive title.
“We just tried to build and progress and get better every single year,” Harden said. “Finally we get to meet again. So we can see where we match up against this team.”
After nearly every Thunder player, with his best poker face, said throughout the seven-game Nuggets-Lakers series that they had no preference which team advanced, Harden finally fessed up just before the series began. He admitted he wanted L.A.
“Yeah, I think all of us did,” Harden said. “You guys did, too.”
It's a special matchup for Harden and Westbrook.
Westbrook, who was 12, 13 and 14 when the Lakers enjoyed their three-peat, remembers the pandemonium of the run.
“It was fun,” Westbrook said. “I was trying to get to the parade. I missed school and all that.”
Westbrook attended two of the enormous celebrations back then, just another kid in a sea of purple and gold trying to get a glimpse of the Lakers' stars. He went with his mother, a cousin and an aunt.
Of course, Westbrook's favorite memory from those celebrations was Shaq, the larger-than-life center who leaned over, propped himself against the Larry O'Brien Trophy and bellowed into a mic that looked minuscule in his huge hands.
“Once again, we love you,” Shaq told the crowd, with a 12-year-old Westbrook listening intently from somewhere. “Like Kobe said, the trophy is home and where it belongs, and we're going to get another one next year … Can youuuu dig it?”
Now, it seems a bit surreal to Westbrook to be on the same stage as the Lakers.
“It's crazy, man, how time passes,” Westbrook said. “And they still have some of the same players there still.”
Westbrook says now that he doesn't reminisce on those days with Harden, not even with Fisher, a spot starter at point guard on those Lakers teams, now a member of the Thunder.
“We try to just leave it alone and remain in the present,” Westbrook said.
Their conversations these days, Westbrook said, are all about the Thunder.
“I get a chance to have a parade of my own now.”
Thunder at Lakers
When: 9:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles
TV: ESPN (Cox 29, HD Ch. 720).
Radio: WWLS 98.1-FM, WWLS 640-AM
Three things to know
*After scoring 119 points in Game 1, the Thunder scored just 77 points in Game 2.
*Games 3 and 4 are a back-to-back set. The Lakers went 9-9 in the first game of a back-to-back in the regular season and 10-9 in the second or third game. The Thunder went 15-4 on the first night of back-to-backs in the regular season and 14-6 on the second or third night of a back-to-back.
*When losing Games 1 and 2 of a best-of-seven series, the Lakers are 2-17. The last time the Lakers won a best-of-seven series after trailing 2-0 was the 2004 conference semifinals against San Antonio.