Harden returning to OKC with Rockets

OKLAHOMA CITY — Thunder coach Scott Brooks is known for his low-key approach, so when he said Wednesday’s game against Houston was something bigger, it made an impression.

After all, Brooks is a company man, loves to talk about the process and the practice. Every game counts the same, all 82 of ’em, so getting too high for the Lakers or showing disinterest in the Bobcats would be a disservice to his team.

But Wednesday? Even Brooks couldn’t temper, stifle or diminish the situation.

“I want to beat the Rockets,” Brooks dead-panned. “They traded me in the second championship year. It took me five years to get over it. It’s still personal.”

Brooks brought the humor Tuesday, deflecting the topic away from another Rockets-Thunder connection, but there won’t be any avoiding it Wednesday when James Harden returns to Oklahoma City.

“It’s a fun game,” Brooks said. “You’re talking great environment.”

But really this game has implications far beyond a regular November matchup. It’s a statement situation wrapped inside the mystery of potential validation.

Sure, it’s early, but don’t count on it being too soon for both the Thunder and Rockets to project who’s winning, or who’s won, the trade that shook up Oklahoma City and rejuvenated a Houston roster.

Brooks and the players wouldn’t say it, and you can’t blame them, but you just know the Oklahoma City players will be doing everything they can to limit Harden.

Neither big question — how much have the Thunder missed Harden and how well can Harden carry a team? — will be answered Wednesday, but both will be pervasive.

And Harden will be doing everything he can to show the Thunder made a mistake when they traded him just days before the season started.

And while the teams will play two more times this season, you also know some team is going to feel pretty validated after the final buzzer Wednesday, because so far this season, it’s been hard to tell who’s won the trade.

“There’s always emotions,” Brooks said. “You also have to understand it’s a business. The team has to make the best decisions for the team. We’ve moved forward and moved on and we’ll continue to charge forward.”

No player seemed to have a better connection with fans than Harden did with the Thunder. A definite crowd favorite, maybe because of his beard, or maybe because of his sixth-man style, coming off the bench but playing like a star.

Harden is gone. Not forgotten, but replaced. Kevin Martin is the new sixth man, providing a comparable amount of scoring with a diminished amount of flair.

Martin and Harden have switched roles. Harden, going from an important piece off the bench to the star of the team. Martin, in his ninth season in the league, has gone from star to complementary piece.

Both have thrived. Martin is averaging 15.7 points per game. Harden is getting a team-high 25.2.

And now Martin gets a chance at his former team, too. People seem to forget that. As much as folks want to make this about how Harden is missed, Martin will be dealing with the same set of emotions as he plays against the team whose uniform he donned for more than two seasons.

“I’ve been in the league nine years. I have nothing personal with anything,” Martin said. “That’s for everyone else to make anything they want to make out of it. Any big trade, people would think that. We’re both doing great in the situations we’re in.”

That situation has the Thunder at 10-4 and the Rockets at 6-7. The situation, as Brooks and his charges say, is not a Thunder-vs.-Harden game, but somewhere it has to be — whether it’s behind the curtain or on the stat sheet.

There’s no question, it’s more emotional for the guy playing against his former team,” Brooks said. “We need to beat the Rockets. It’s not just James. When you come back and play against the team you’ve been traded, there’s more emotions there. It’s important that we focus on beating them and not just what he does.”

But what he does is make the Rockets go. Stop Harden, and the Thunder should thrive. He’s the team’s leading scorer on the fifth-highest scoring team in the league.

“He has the green light and plays freely and can basically do what he wants,” Thunder guard Russell Westbrook said. “Our job is not to worry about slowing James down. As long as we play team defense we’ll be alright.”

More importantly, stop Harden and the Thunder can say they won the trade, that they don’t miss him, that everything will be fine, or even better.

For now.