Everyone knows that Wednesday’s game against the Rockets means just a little bit more. Even Scott Brooks, who broke from his “every game matters the same” script after practice Tuesday.
“No, it’s not just another game. I want to beat the Rockets,” Brooks said. “They traded me in the second championship year. It took me five years to get over Rudy Tomjanovich. Now we’re best buddies. But yeah, it’s still personal.”
OK, other than that, it’s not just any game for the Thunder. It’s the return of James Harden, which will surely be an awkward, somewhat emotional night at The Peake.
It was just a month ago — exactly a month, tomorrow — that the Thunder traded Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward away in a blockbuster than brought in Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and picks. It was a shocking turn of events after the Thunder couldn’t reach an extension agreement with Harden. With everything Harden had said himself from talking about sacrifice, to taking less money, to being “a hundred percent” sure he was staying, it was hard to be prepared for it.
And now, Harden returns. How will the fans respond? A lot has happened since Harden was traded and a player once as beloved as any on the roster is seen in a bit of a different light. Still, it’s hard to forget the very good times the Thunder had with Harden. The big shots, the big dunks, the big moments.
“Obviously with James coming back, the fans are going to be excited to see him,” Brooks said. “But I really believe they’re going to cheer him on early and cheer for us the rest of the game.”
Whatever the reaction is, it’s going to be weird. But Brooks says, probably more so for Harden.
“There’s no question it’s probably more emotional for the guy playing against his former team than a team playing against one player,” he said. “Because we look at tomorrow’s game as we have to beat the Rockets.”
Don’t forget though, this is Kevin Martin’s first time playing against his old team too. While it doesn’t carry the same weight as Harden’s return to OKC, he definitely understands the situation better than most.
“He’s going to be hit with a lot of emotions. Especially the closer it gets to tipoff,” Martin said. “But the fans love him here, he had success. So it should be a good welcoming for him.”
What about for him personally, playing against the Rockets?
“I had some great years down there. Not being in a Rockets uniform, it’ll be a little emotional,” he said. “But it’s part of the business and you wish them the best of luck and you go on with the game and try and win it.”
There’s no doubt that Harden meant a lot to this team, and this city. He was an extremely important player on the roster, but a beloved personality and a close friend in the locker room. Unless you’re Russell Westbrook who is devoid of personal attachment and emotion.
“It won’t be nothing for me. Nothing happened to me. It’s another night man,” said Westbrook. “Like I said, those guys, James, Daequan, Cole, we’re all still good friends. But we got to go in and take care of business.”
Brooks said he plans to begin the game with Thabo Sefolosha on Harden, which should come as zero surprise since Harden is Houston’s best player and Thabo is OKC’s best defender. But there will likely be adjustments throughout the night. Because if anyone understands how to defend Harden, it should be the Thunder.
“The crazy thing is though, good players seem to figure out how to get their points and get their game going,” Brooks said. “Everybody knows the league pretty well. You know how to stop Kevin Durant, but it’s hard to do it. You know how to stop Russell, but it’s hard to do it. That’s what makes the great players special. And James, it’s hard to stop him.”
Stopping Harden though means you’ve stopped the Rockets. As Darnell Mayberry pointed out, games in which Harden shoots over 45 percent the Rockets are 5-0. They’re 1-7 when he shoots under 45 percent. That was the rallying cry about Harden’s move is that while he was going to be The Man in Houston, he also wasn’t going to have Durant and Westbrook to lean on. And the Thunder want to give Harden the rude awakening of showing him what he’s missing in OKC.
On his quote about it being personal with the Rockets: “That was the truth many years ago though. But I wasn’t really good enough to be like, ‘Oh, I’m really going to go at ’em next time we play ’em.'”
On Harden’s perspective: “When you come back and play a team where you’ve been traded from, there’s obviously more emotions there.”
On sharing the ball “We know we’re a special team when we’re sharing the ball. That’s one thing coach has been talking about the last couple weeks. Just keep sharing the ball, keep trusting each other an that’s what we’ve been doing lately.”
On if it’s a little more personal with Harden tomorrow: “I’ve been in the league nine years. I’ve have nothing personal with anything. It’s for everybody else to make whatever they want to make out of it.”
On what he’s been doing different the past few weeks: “Nothing. I mean I’ve been taking the same amount of shots. Just been making ’em.”
On defending Harden: “I mean, I don’t know what it’s like. Because we ain’t played yet. But it’s different. He has a green light over there, he plays freely. He’s able to basically do whatever he wants. But we just have to do a good job of team defense and we’ll be alright.”
On how much he’s talked to Harden: “None really. Not much.”