In what was one of the most anticipated matchups of the NBA regular season so far, James Harden and the Houston Rockets traveled to Oklahoma City last night for the first time since the Thunder traded Harden.
Both teams tried to downplay the game calling it “just another game.” That was clearly not the case. Harden exchanged smiles and conversation with the Thunder players before the game. He was not booed by the home crowd either.
Harden had a little extra jump in his step after the tip-off. You could tell he wanted to have a big night. He was checking Kevin Durant on defense and giving him a few extracurricular bumps as they ran up and down the court.
But things did not go so smoothly for the rhythmic Harden. His usual graceful self was met by a wall of eager Thunder defenders, all of which seemed to want to get a piece of Harden when he drove the lane.
Serge Ibaka led the way for the Thunder with six blocks in the game and made Harden’s ventures into the paint a nightmare. Durant defended Harden’s usually unstoppable eurostep on the fast break better than most, repelling quickly to avoid any contact while all too knowing of what was coming.
Harden started the game missing just about everything. When he found himself seemingly wide open at the free throw line following a loose ball, a calm jumper was swatted out of bounds from behind by a flying Russell Westbrook.
All in all, Harden had his shot blocked seven times in the game. He shot 3-for-16 from the field and finished with 17 points as the Rockets fell 120-98.
This is what Harden gets to deal with now and it’s the reality of the kind of player he is right now in Houston. With little help surrounding him, a concentrated effort by a defense to take him out of a game is very possible and relatively easy to do.
Harden began the season with an obvious chip on his shoulder, scoring 37 then a career-high 45 points in the first two games of the year. But since then he has shot below 40 percent from the field on the year. This is the guy who posted a ridiculous true shooting percentage of 66.0 percent a season ago in OKC.
Meanwhile, the Thunder are still thriving post-Harden. Kevin Martin has done a fair job filling the void and also scored 17 points last night but did so much more efficiently than Harden. The Thunder have a higher winning percentage so far this year than the last and look well on their way to a 1- or 2-seed in the Western Conference.
Harden will get to sit and watch the playoffs from home this time when the Thunder get there. Houston’s not making any noise this season, not that late in the year.
The Thunder and Harden may each regret this trade at some point. OKC might have ultimately taken a step back this season when the playoffs come around. They may be looking for Harden in the fourth quarter like they did last year.
Harden gets paid but rings are a long way away now. Winning championships was something that was easy to dream about the past few years but now is pretty much a joke.
Harden will likely reach an age where he does regret leaving OKC. The extra money will stop meaning so much and he’ll think – like all Thunder fans – what could have been had he stayed.
The Thunder are still likely to go on and win titles with their current core. Durant and Westbrook look better every year and now Ibaka is emerging as the new member of their new Big 3. Bright days are ahead for the Thunder. Titles may not come as quickly now had they kept Harden but they will still come.
Harden wanted to prove himself upon returning to OKC last night. He failed at that. He is still respected and is truly becoming an All-Star now but this was a reality check for him. The Thunder made sure he got it.
The Beard is no more in OKC. Now it’s definitely time to move on. It’s all happened so fast but it’s officially a new era in OKC.