They tried to say this was just another game.
They wanted us to believe them.
But we all knew the truth. Knew it since that cold, late October night, when this Wednesday date was first circled on calendars all across the state.
And by the time the Thunder took the court and stared across at James Harden, once a friend but now a foe who wore Rockets red rather than Thunder blue, we knew it was on.
“The pride gets in,” said Thabo Sefolosha, “and definitely you don't want to be the one where he scores 30 against you.”
Harden never came close to that output in his highly anticipated homecoming, which turned into a message-sending 120-98 Thunder thumping.
From the opening tip, the Thunder smothered Harden as he returned to Oklahoma City for the first time since being traded to Houston last month in the wake of failed talks on a contract extension. The first draft pick in Oklahoma City Thunder history, who in three years blossomed into the league's best player off the bench, labored through a nightmarish 17-point performance that saw him go 3-for-16 from the field. It was his worst shooting display this season in any game in which he's attempted at least 10 shots.
Harden had erupted for at least 30 points four times in his first 14 games. But his one-man tour was stopped in its tracks the moment it pulled into Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“We guarded him well,” said Nick Collison. “We didn't give him a lot of easy ones. Also, we kept pursuing him. Even when he would get into the paint we kept pursuing him and made a couple of those paint shots a little more difficult.”
Armed with more knowledge of Harden's strengths than anyone, the Thunder dialed in on every available nugget and used them all to its advantage. What unfolded was a swarming defense reminiscent of the one Miami used to bottle up Harden and eliminate his effectiveness in his preferred high and side pick-and-rolls.
The Thunder's big men, Collison, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, fortified fantastic first efforts by Sefolosha and Kevin Durant and kept Harden in check much of the night. Some mix of those five defenders sandwiched Harden all over the court, cutting off his driving lanes while preventing proper passes to open teammates. With two bodies glued to Harden, the Thunder successfully shut down the Rockets' pick-and-roll game and, ultimately, Houston's high-octane attack.
“We all tried to be aggressive and make him pass the ball,” said Ibaka, who scored 23 points with nine rebounds and six blocked shots, including two on Harden layups. “Make the other guys make plays for them.”
Houston's other prized pickup, point guard Jeremy Lin, suffered from the same deadly dose of defense. He scored just six points on 3-for-7 shooting in 41 minutes — making Lin and Harden a combined 6-for-23 for 23 points. Harden, who was perhaps the best playmaker on the Thunder, dished just three assists and had three turnovers.
The swarming defense, in the face of Harden pressing the issue, showed exactly what this game meant despite players on both sides — Harden chief among them — attempting to downplay the matchup.
“I'm glad he's doing well out there in Houston, but we wanted this win bad,” Durant finally confessed after dropping a season-high tying 37 points for the second time in three games.
“For all those days in practice where him, Daequan (Cook) and Eric Maynor beat the first group, I wanted this game real bad.”