It’s only fitting that the Oklahoma City Thunder are missing James Harden the most when they play on national television. First, it was the season-opener in San Antonio on TNT that OKC could have really used Harden.
Last night was the second time Harden was missed greatest and absolutely needed as the Thunder lost 107-97 to the Memphis Grizzlies.
After outscoring Memphis 30-20 in the first quarter, the Thunder second unit was completely out played and OKC was outscored 36-15 in the second quarter.
Kevin Martin and Eric Maynor, the two players that are out there to replace Harden in that second unit this year, combined for just nine points and one assist in the game.
Memphis is one of the best teams in the league right now at 7-1 on the year. They’ve been a top 10 offense and even better defensively so far this season. They’re a different animal than most teams in the league defending you in your grill from 30 feet out and making you work for every inch.
This is something that never really bothered Harden too much, who is as efficient as anyone in the league with his handle, and really takes his game to another level when faced with that kind of challenging defense.
For the Thunder last night, instead of having a third star step up when they needed it, it was a disaster when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook went to the bench. Maynor could hardly get the ball past halfcourt and Martin was on his heels whenever he caught it.
The Thunder couldn’t even come back from the deficit in the second half despite playing Durant and Westbrook the final 24 minutes. A big reason for that is OKC was unable to go small because Memphis boasts such bigs in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
The Thunder have been at their best when going small with Durant at the four and Thabo Sefolosha as an extra wing this year. Last night, it was Kendrick Perkins logging the major minutes and not Sefolosha.
More things have to go right for the Thunder now with Harden out of town. He isn’t there to save the day with the second unit anymore when all isn’t perfect elsewhere with the team.
If there’s one thing that is definitely true about Harden, it’s that he relished in his role coming off the bench and being able to run that second unit in OKC. He was always up for the challenge of turning the Thunder offense into an efficient one when Westbrook came out of the game.
Finding that same kind of production that Harden brought is still possible for the Thunder, it’s just going to be less common especially when playing a team like Memphis. More will now be needed from Durant and Westbrook isn’t going to be able to have as many poor shooting nights as he’s had already this season.
But it’s still very early and the Thunder are still learning how to play together with this slightly new team. Last night was a test this group hadn’t seen together yet. They can grow from it and learn how to win games like that.
It’s just that they had already done that with Harden. This is the step back OKC is taking this year. Only time will tell if they can keep going forward by the end of the year.