The Oklahoma City Thunder got their first taste Thursday night of life without James Harden, part of a buzzer-beating 86-84 loss that should drive home the obvious and its consequences: A new era in Thunder basketball has begun, and that’s one of several reasons the Western Conference is now up for grabs.
We’re just a few games into the season, yes, but Oklahoma City’s first game since shipping Harden to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and draft picks was an appropriately close affair.
A reminder, even one game in, that every player added or subtracted from a roster can be a difference maker. Make that player one of Harden’s tremendous ability – who helped the Thunder rally past the Spurs in the playoffs last year – and you can start to see the scales tipping back toward even.
Harden himself offered a reminder of his value Wednesday night in his Rockets debut: 37 points, 12 assists, six rebounds and four steals.
Even a little bit of that excellence probably helps the Thunder win Thursday, and certainly makes them feel more comfortable about dealing with the Spurs in the long-haul this regular season and into the playoffs.
This is new if necessary territory for the Thunder. For the first time since Kevin Durant was a rookie, his team has had to pause its rapid ascent because a tough choice forced a step back.
It makes sense why Thunder general manager Sam Presti decided Harden had to go. They could not close the gap on a new contract. As hard as it is to accept seeing a star with so much upside sent elsewhere, the Thunder are built around a few ideas, one of the paramount being that the self-sacrifice of its best players is key to winning in a small market during a time of super teams.
It’s equally so that Martin had a fine, fine debut in Harden’s spot. He notched 15 points, had five assists and drained a big three with 3:23 left in the game that notched the score at 80-80. Durant was Durant, piling in 23 points and pulling in 14 rebounds and Russell Westrbrook scored 18 on just 6-of-21 shooting.
The Thunder out-rebounded San Antonio 48-39, they looked fairly deep, they looked pretty good.
But this is still the Spurs, with Tim Duncan seeming as ageless as his team. He had 20 points and eight rebounds, a force in the point to complement Tony Parker’s 14 points and 11 assists – and his dagger as the clock ticked to zero to snatch the win.
It’s much too soon to see how this new Thunder team, with Eric Maynor back, Martin in and Lamb young and unproven, will play out. Which is just the point. Last season, the Thunder rolled to the Finals, losing to the Miami Heat. The only question coming into this season, before Harden was traded, was how much better could they be.
This season, minus Harden and the strange alchemy that is a locker room – where one ingredient, one guy, can change the whole mix – it will be different.
Better? Worse? Same result in a different way? Too soon to say.
But now Oklahoma City is like the Lakers, full of talent and potential but also lugging around some serious question marks. The Lakers’ primary issues stem from trying to merge all these new, not-quite-the-right-fit parts – and whether head coach Mike Brown is up to the task of coaching this team.
The Thunder must deal with Harden’s departure and the tricky-to-foresee consequences. Last season, Harden scored efficiently while on the floor with Durant and Westbrook. But he also averaged twice as many points per 36 minutes with Durant off the floor (31.2 to 14.9 points). Same for when Westbrook grabbed some bench (29 points per 36 minutes to 13.7).
That means the Thunder lost a key scorer with their two stars on the floor and a sub-in star when they sat.
All this we already knew.
But it’s different to see it in action.
The loss to the Spurs is just one game in a very, very long season, and there was a lot to like in how the Thunder played. There’s no need to make any drastic conclusions, or to shoot down Sam Presti, or to pronounce the Thunder as now in deep trouble.
But it’s also true that seeing Oklahoma City without Harden just felt wrong. Off. And it’s going to be one of the big questions of this NBA season whether that feeling of being off without Harden will remain or recede as the season plays out.