James Harden credits his past failures for his present day success.
The third-year guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder says he wouldn't be excelling in his current role as the team's sixth man if it had not been for the bumps and bruises he took throughout his first two seasons.
“All the things leading up to it,” Harden explained when asked what prepared him. “All the bad games.”
Now, Harden will walk into the birthplace of the sixth man Monday night when the Thunder takes on Boston at TD Garden as one of the game's next great spark plugs. He'll carry with him an NBA reserve-leading 17.4-point scoring average and a 46.6 percent shooting clip. Both are career bests that would make every great sixth man from Bobby Jones to Bobby Jackson beam with pride.
“With our situation with James, it's a tremendous asset to have James come off the bench and provide us instant playmaking,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He's able to see the game and feel out what the game needs and provide that spark.”
Unbeknownst to him — and perhaps the vast majority of fans — Harden has been grooming for his current role since being selected third overall in the 2009 NBA Draft.
As a rookie, Harden showed flashes of his future impact but struggled with inconsistency. Midway through his second season, it had become clear that Harden was capable of starting. But by then, the Thunder had established a nice rhythm and chemistry with its first and second units.
With Harden anchoring the B Team, though, he was granted freedom that rarely came with the starters; especially when offensive oriented players Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic were still around last season. Harden then began to blossom. He was able to take charge and adapt to different defenses. He could study the first six to seven minutes of games and dissect exactly how he needed to make an impact once he checked in.
The sixth man role also helped prompt Harden to be more aggressive, something Brooks essentially had to beg Harden to do throughout his first 1 1/2 seasons.
Now Harden attributes a large portion of his success to his newfound aggressiveness.
“I need to be consistent with my aggressiveness every single night,” Harden said. “Whether I'm making shots or missing shots, making plays is something I have to incorporate into the game every single night.”
Harden is now handling the ball more than ever while playing nearly 30 minutes a night. He's become a reliable “point-forward” that can bring the ball up the court and initiate the team's offense. With that responsibility, Harden has averaged 3.5 assists against 1.6 turnovers, a 2.19 assists-to-turnover ratio that ranks sixth among shooting guards.
So far, Harden has made what he calls the biggest challenge of a sixth man look easy.
“Being consistent every night, that's the hardest thing,” Harden said. “Sometimes you go in the game and your team is down. And you got to figure out how to round up the troops and get them going.”
Brooks stopped well short of mentioning Harden in the same breath as the most successful sixth men in league history. But, as the Thunder prepares to walk into the birthplace of the sixth man, Brooks did say with confidence that his team has a pretty good one who is capable of having the same effect.
“I think you can do down the line through all the championship teams,” Brooks said. “They've always had a solid scorer and playmaker off the bench, and he is that guy for us. We, like all the other teams, want to win a championship. And we know James is about winning and about doing the right thing.”