OKLAHOMA CITY — You had to know this was going to happen.
You just knew James Harden was going to come back at some point, and at some point it was going to really matter.
And now the Thunder are in a no-win situation, while Harden is poised for the ultimate “I told you so” moment.
Five days before the season started, the Thunder traded the popular Harden to Houston, and now we’re two days before the teams tip off in the first round of the playoffs in Oklahoma City.
We meet again.
If you didn’t think this was going to happen, you’re an optimist. If you think this series is anything other than Harden vs. Oklahoma City, you’re mistaken.
This is a stand-off and is as big as it gets for April in the NBA. The Thunder may say they are distancing themselves from a grudge match against their former teammate, but we know better than that. It’s only natural to want to one-up a former solider. It only makes sense to say to him, “Here’s what you left behind.”
And it only makes sense for Harden to show how broad his shoulders really are. How he really is the max-contract player Houston paid him to be while the Thunder said he wasn’t. Good enough to carry a team to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons and score his way to becoming one of the NBA’s elite.
Just a perfect opportunity for Harden and a losing proposition for the Thunder.
Not that he hasn’t already had his chances. Harden pressed and pressed and pressed this season in three games against Oklahoma City, going 3 of 16 in the first game and 6 of 17 in the next — both Houston losses. But he hit on the third, going 14 of 19 and scoring 46 points in a win in the third and final regular-season meeting this season.
If he goes for 40-plus again, the Rockets very well may win, but so does Harden. After all, Houston is just the No. 8 seed. The Rockets aren’t supposed to do much against Oklahoma City, which frees Harden to do anything he wants. A good game and it proves he just needed more help. A bad game and it proves nothing other than the Thunder were the superior team from the beginning.
Houston doesn’t defend particularly well and barely got in front of the Thunder in the three games this season. Expect more of the same, with Russell Westbrook having little trouble going to the basket and Kevin Durant scoring as much as he wants.
And expect all the talk to be about Harden. He averaged 25.9 points this season, but will carry the burden of carrying his team. That will likely manifest itself with Harden taken more shots. He’s going to feel like he needs to shoot, needs to prove himself.
And it’s possibly catching up already. Harden has shot 50 percent or better from the field in just one game in April and only three times in March. He averaged just 39 percent from the field in April and 38.9 in March. He didn’t shoot below 40 percent in any month before that.
Harden has to get hot for the Rockets to win. While it’s unlikely he does it for four games and ousts the Thunder, it’s the worst fear for OKC executives who have to be bracing for a public relations hit if he does.
Harden is certainly capable. He’s done it before. Expect the Thunder to do everything possible to stop it. Follow Andrew Gilman on Twitter @theandrewgilman