HOUSTON – James Harden is universally considered an All-Star-caliber player. He was on the Olympic team, for Pete’s sake. He’s great. Nobody disputes this.
So it is curious that he has changed teams this season, from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Houston Rockets, and yet the Thunder do not appear to have gotten any worse and the Rockets do not appear to have gotten any better.
He was like a chubby kid hopping off the teeter totter, except that nothing happened.
“I don’t look at it that way,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “He was a great player for us, an All-Star player. He’s going to be that way for many, many, many years.”
Still, the Thunder (23-6) crushed the Rockets (16-14), 124-94, on Saturday night at Toyota Center. It was the Rockets’ fourth game in five nights, and looked that way. They shot 40 percent, turned it over 24 times and got demolished (53-36) on the glass. The score was 52-50 OKC at one point, and that was as far as Houston could push it.
“We aren’t laying brick in 110-degree weather,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale, who was perturbed by a series of mental lapses. “Since everybody has played basketball they’ve been a little bit tired. You just got to go out and push through it.”
Russell Westbrook scored 28 and Kevin Durant scored 26 to lead the Thunder, which had more than enough to handle 25 points from Harden and a career-high 24 from Marcus Morris.
So much has changed, and yet so little has changed.
“Our coach does a great job of incorporating the new guys we’ve got,” Kevin Durant said.
It does help that the main new guy, former Rocket Kevin Martin, is averaging 15.8 points off the bench. He’s a much different player from Harden, but the Thunder have been able to make it work just the same. Martin popped off the bench Saturday (at which point he was booed for some reason) and immediately hit two 3s. He finished with 19 in his old arena.
“It was great to see the faces of the coaching staff,” he said. “Not too many of the players are still here.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. Acquiring Harden required a series of personnel moves that more or less erased whatever the Rockets had been while Martin was around. Without Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry, Samuel Dalembert and Chase Budinger, the Rockets are younger, faster, more entertaining. Not better, but heading in a certain direction. There is an identity now.
But the Thunder have an identity, too: Defending Western Conference champions.
“Bottom line is we play a bunch of guys that have not had this type of role before in the NBA,” McHale said. “Marcus Morris has played 35 games, maybe. We’re playing against a team that’s been together eight years. Omer (Asik) has never started before in his career. Jeremy (Lin) has never started a season.”
McHale points to little things. A bad 3-pointer here, an attempt at a great play there when a solid play would do. Understanding time, score, momentum.
“There is a flow to the game that you have to understand,” he said. “And until you understand the flow of the game, it’s hard to understand what you have to do.”
The Thunder experienced none of those woes. So they got to skip off into the night. They miss Harden. You can tell. But it’s the way you miss a friend, not an All-Star.
“He’s a brother for life,” Durant said. “I think he’s going to be a part of the Thunder for life, even though he’s playing for a different team.”
Kind words. Maybe even true ones. Harden, naturally, was not feeling so expressive.
“We were careless with the ball,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain everything, but at least get a shot up and not turn the ball over.”