James Harden returned to Oklahoma City as a member of the the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, his first time doing so since the Thunder traded him out of town due to a failure to agree on a contract extension prior to the start of the season.
While the fans gave Harden a warm welcome during pregame introductions, his former teammates seemed hell-bent on making sure that his time spent playing the actual game would be nothing short of miserable.
The Thunder focused their efforts defensively in shutting Harden down, and were successful in doing so on the way to a 120-98 home victory over the Rockets.
Houston was without starting forward Chandler Parsons due to a shoulder injury, which just meant that the scoring burden would fall on Harden’s shoulders even more than usual. Playing against his former team, whose players not only knew that but also knew Harden’s tendencies, he didn’t have much of a chance, and his numbers on the night showed it.
Harden was clearly pressing in the first half, and whether trying to prove something to his former teammates or simply trying to ignite a spark for his current team, the result was a failed one all the same. He had just three points at intermission, which all came on free throws, after missing all eight of his attempts from the field, while committing two turnovers.
Harden had two of his first half shot attempts blocked viciously by Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, both of whom made sure to put a little extra on their defensive plays as a gift to their former teammate.
Harden got his first bucket of the game on a fast break layup with under a minute gone in the third, but finished just 3-of-16 from the field. He did manage 17 points thanks to two of his made shots being from three-point distance, to go along with his nine made free throws. But with no other reliable offensive threat on the floor for the Rockets to speak of, Harden faced various forms of double-teams all night long, with predictably dismal results.
OKC got a superstar performance from Kevin Durant, who finished with 37 points on 13-of-22 shooting, while playing almost 43 minutes. The man Harden was traded for, Kevin Martin, finished with 17 points in 28 minutes off the bench.
It was an unusually long and draining day for the Rockets, even by NBA standards. The team spent the first part of the day attending the funeral of Sasha McHale in Minnesota, who was the daughter of the team’s head coach Kevin McHale that passed away tragically over the weekend. The Rockets didn’t even arrive in Oklahoma City until late afternoon on Wednesday, which is highly unusual for any team playing a game in another city that very same night.
Harden’s performance should not be judged too harshly in this one, for a variety of reasons. The unusual travel circumstances, combined with the fact that his new team is simply not as good as the Thunder from a talent standpoint have to be weighed heavily when critiquing his game on this night.
Houston (and Harden) need to think of this in terms of the big picture.
Harden moved on to a better situation for himself in Houston. He got the max contract that he wanted, and he got the opportunity to be the number one option offensively as a member of his new team’s starting lineup.
Houston may not yet be able to play at the level that the Thunder can right now, but dealing for Harden was the first step in a process that the team hopes will be a successful one in making that a reality at some point in the not-too-distant future.