Did the real James Harden stand up Sunday night against Cleveland? If so, I’m guessing that was him treating J.J. Hickson like the newspaper at the bottom of a bird cage.
The Beard played with purpose and without fear in what was, along with his 23-point outing Nov. 20 in Milwaukee with Kevin Durant on the bench, one of his signature performances of the season for him thus far. Harden played decisively on both ends of the floor, moved the ball, maintained a good energy level in a blowout and provided the scoring punch off the bench that Oklahoma City sorely needs.
In short, Harden played like the guy the Thunder thought it was getting at the No. 3 spot in the 2009 NBA Draft, and he did it within the current role he has on the team. And, perhaps not coincidentally, Oklahoma City finally had the laugher win over a bad team that contending squads are supposed to have often.
Harden’s stat line stands out: 6-8 shooting, including 2-3 from behind the arc. Three assists against one turnover. Twenty-one minutes. Three dimes and three boards for good measure. He can’t be expected to shoot percentages quite that high on a nightly basis, but the way he played, and the way Oklahoma City played with him, makes you think that the player everyone hopes he can be could be a little closer to appearing on a more regular basis.
It was just one game. And there have been others at least close to it — the aforementioned Milwaukee game and his 14 points on 50 percent shooting against the Spurs in a loss on Nov. 14 come to mind. But this was the first in a win and with Harden as the sixth man. And it wasn’t just what he did, but how he did it.
Take the dunk on Hickson as the first and best example. I had a good angle on the run he made from where I sat Sunday behind the basket where he collected the defensive rebound to begin the play. He corralled the shot and immediately put the ball on the floor. All five Cavs were further north on the court than he was, but he had a more-or-less direct path to the basket as long as he stayed on the left hand side. It seemed to be a slow-developing drive, even though he was basically sprinting up the court. There was plenty of time for me to think. Hey, we’ve got a break here. He should keep driving. He’s got a chance to take this to the hole. Keep going, James, I like the aggressiveness. I think he might dunk it. Hey, he IS going to dunk it. OH MY GOODNESS I AM STANDING AND YELLING BECAUSE THAT JUST HAPPENED.
There was never a doubt. He knew what he was going to do the entire time, and he did it. And it carried over through the rest of the game, despite the fact he missed the and-one free throw. Almost every single time he touched the ball from there on out, he did the right thing and did it without thinking, just like Scott Brooks has been begging him to do as the season has unfolded. It showed on both sides of the floor as well — after he hit a 3-point shot soon after the dunk, he got an almost-steal on the other end on the ensuing Cleveland possession. He was clearly locked in.
This would seem to be the perfect time for Harden and the rest of the team to get in some reps playing the game the way Brooks and everyone else wants them to play. The rest of the month features games against the relatively soft Rockets, Kings, Suns Bobcats and Nets among contests against more-worthy opponents in the Knicks (who have fattened up with an easy schedule), Mavericks, Hawks and Nuggets. There’s some time to fine-tune some things and get on a little bit of a roll heading into January, which is packed with eight games against playoff contenders.
The Thunder fan base is collectively begging Harden at this point to keep playing the way he did Sunday. (And for Durant, who scored 25 points on 10-17 shooting, to do the same.) It just might be possible with that relatively easy schedule through New Year’s. It’s an opportunity to instill more confidence in Harden during the part of the season where it’s still silly to worry about playoff seeding or anything else other than playing complete games and staying healthy.
Sure, the Cavs are pretty bad. They’ve now lost eight straight overall and eight straight on the road and were on the second half of a back-to-back on Sunday. But it cannot be overstated that it was the first time Oklahoma City played like a contender matched up against a cellar dweller, and one of the first times in the young season that Harden played like the high lottery pick he was.