Thunder coach Scott Brooks said before Saturday's game against Phoenix that reserve shooting guard James Harden has “definitely earned the opportunity” to be a starter.
Brooks, however, said the abbreviated training camp didn't help Harden's cause entering this season and added that Harden's groin injury that caused him to miss nearly a week of practices both went into the decision to keep Thabo Sefolosha as the starter.
“He's fine where he's at,” Brooks said. “I look at him as a sixth starter. He's going to play enough minutes that he's going to help us win games. And he's fine with that. He's about the team and it's good to have that because he's good enough to start.”
Against Dallas on Thursday, Harden played 35 minutes while Sefolosha received 13. Brooks said he stuck with Harden that night because he felt the team needed his offense. Ordinarily, though, Brooks said 35 minutes is a little much for Harden.
“That position is tough,” Brooks said. “You have to produce offensively and you're guarding the best scorer. That takes a lot out of you. And we have a lot of games stacked up against each other.”
LOOKING TO MAINTAIN THE LEAD
In each of the first three games this season, the Thunder has led by double digits but was forced to fight late to hold onto the win.
The Thunder was ahead by 22 against Orlando on opening night before winning by eight, up 12 at Minnesota before winning by four and led by 12 at Memphis before winning by three.
“That's one of the tough things in this league,” Brooks said. “It's tough to go from 12 to 20. Not just our team, but the league in general you very rarely see 20-point blowouts. We have areas to improve on. I always look at if you can't score you better get a stop type of mentality. And we still have to keep working on that part of the game.
“Execution is a big part of every team in this league. We want to just keep getting a good shot and getting defensive stops. But it's hard to beat teams in this league and when you when you do you have to play well.”
BROOKS BREAKS OUT NEW WRINKLE
The Thunder has unveiled a subtle tweak this season that has helped it have more success executing plays through five games.
To help get Kevin Durant free in half-court sets, Brooks has had Russell Westbrook set a down screen on Durant's man. The goal is to get Durant open at the free throw line area for a high-percentage play.
“It's so hard for point guards to defend that screen down because they're not put in that position a lot,” Brooks said. “And we really want them to switch because if you do a big, a lot of time they might switch a big. But we'd rather have, if they're going to switch, Kevin guarded by a point guard. But Russell sets great screens. He's one of our best screen setters and he's done a great job. We have to find ways to work that into our offense throughout the game. And we have.”
Guard Daequan Cook was taken to the locker room in the second half. He did not return and was listed with flu-like symptoms. … Seven players had scored the Thunder's 11 field goals after one quarter. … Before the game, Suns coach Alvin Gentry marveled at Durant's long arms. “He must have a 7-5 wingspan,” Gentry said. … Durant had just two points at halftime. … Forward Lazar Hayward made his season debut Saturday, checking in at the start of the fourth quarter. He scored his first basket in a Thunder uniform on a fast break dunk off a feed from Harden with 6:56 left to play. … Rookie guard Reggie Jackson, the 24th overall pick, made his season debut after checking in with 4:36 remaining. Jackson scored the first points of his career on a driving layup with 3:06 left to play.
The Thunder will play at Dallas on Monday. It will be the second of four scheduled meetings between the two teams this season. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.