For one night, Suns get best of Harden

PHOENIX – It seemed like a potential collision of local popularity and tactical symmetry.

But could James Harden actually reach free agency and plant his free-agent flag on Planet Orange? Sure, some front-office agility might be required, but this blessed pairing wasn’t so difficult to fathom, right?

Well, the notion maintained a vigorous talk radio heartbeat and flourished in the relentless corridors of the blogosphere, reaching a crescendo on April 19 of last year.

One night earlier, the former Arizona State star — working off the bench — scored 40 points on the Suns in a win for the Thunder at US Airways Center. For loyal Suns fans more than happy to nominate candidates to occupy the title of this franchise’s next star player, Harden’s performance was a validation.

He seemed to be as close to “next chosen one” status as pro basketball in this town might see in a while.

We saw him again Saturday night at USAC, where Harden went 7 for 10 from 3-point range and 11 for 17 overall while scoring 38 points in a 107-105 loss to the Suns.

“He’s at the point where he’s a star in this league,” Suns guard Jared Dudley said of the 23-year-old Harden. “I could see him being an All-Star for the next five, six years.”

Harden, of course, is working for the Rockets these days. And he has a five-year deal worth $80 million. That means any festering hope of the slick lefty weaving through defenders on behalf of the Suns is done.

But it all appeared to be so … well … doable, right? Harden reportedly loved his time at ASU and has an affection for the Phoenix area, and the Suns were prepared to keep making peace with the gods of cap flexibility.

OKC, which had already destroyed its piggy bank to reward Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook with long-term employment, was having difficulty reconciling the notion of going luxury-tax mad by re-signing both Harden and Serge Ibaka for what would be market value. An eventual offer to Harden of $52 million over four years — which qualifies as less than the coveted maximum — was rejected.

The Thunder, still serious candidates to win an NBA title, wouldn’t move Harden before he had another chance to help deliver an O’Brien Trophy. Or would they?

Well, thanks to Houston’s effort to collect enough draft-related assets to make a run at Dwight Howard, the Rockets were able to muster a trade package sufficient to get a deal done with OKC.

Instead of allowing Harden to enter the final season on his contract, the Thunder sent him to the Rockets for a return of Kevin Martin (an accomplished scorer who, like Harden, plays shooting guard), 2012 lottery pick Jeremy Lamb (another shooting guard reportedly coveted by the Suns before the draft) and a first-round pick Houston received from Toronto for Kyle Lowry.

The Suns, who admitted to having extensive talks with the Thunder regarding Harden, didn’t really move OKC’s interest needle. According to reports, the required price tag for Phoenix was two first-round picks, a player of some substance not named Goran Dragic and another player.

Although Suns decision makers have not divulged any particulars regarding their pursuit of Harden, local perception indicated that Phoenix didn’t think the Bearded One was elite enough to move that many crucial assets. Even if the Suns would have upped the ante, it may not have trumped what the Rockets offered.

Anyway, through Saturday night, the Suns — a team full of hybrid forwards categorized as really nice role players — were 22-41, while the Rockets (34-30) were the seventh seed in the Western Conference.

The Rockets, who finished 34-32 after the lockout last season, rank third in the NBA in offensive efficiency at 110.4 points per 100 possessions. They averaged about five points fewer and ranked nine spots lower last season.

Although the chase for Howard has created significant roster upheaval in Houston, the presence of Harden has had considerable impact.

Going into Saturday’s game, the ex-Sun Devil was fifth among NBA scorers (26.2) and third — behind Miami’s LeBron James and former OKC teammate Kevin Durant — in an overall-importance metric called win shares. In addition to points, Harden is giving the Rockets 4.8 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game.

His game, often referred to as “old school,” features an ability to attack in a variety of ways.

“I think it’s different,” Suns interim coach Lindsey Hunter said of Harden’s style. “He’s a two-guard that dominates the ball so much. Kind of like a version of LeBron James almost. I think the difference is — not that LeBron can’t shoot the 3 — but I think Harden shoots it more.

“He stretches the floor a little more, but attacks basically the same way. I think it’s different for any two-guard to have to guard him. Instead of running and chasing off screens, you’re defending on the ball most of the night.”

On Saturday, with the Rockets sleepwalking through the second quarter, Harden felt obliged to ratchet up his involvement in the second half. He scored 25 points over the last two quarters, but his all-or-nothing approach caused his turnover total to match his assist number (eight) and contributed to Houston’s 21 miscues.

When it was over, Harden — who postponed his media session to be checked out by a doctor, but didn’t provide any insight about why — was not exactly giddy over his team’s focus.

“We’ve got to go out and compete on every possession,” he said. “Times like this, we need wins. We just let another one slip away from us.”

Although the Rockets added Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik prior to acquiring Harden, his ascension to NBA star hasn’t been rapid enough to drag the Rockets beyond the lower levels of playoff contention.

“He’s definitely an elite player,” Dudley said. “But he’s not a top-five guy, and I don’t think he can be the top guy on a championship team. He could be a No. 2, though, like (Dwyane) Wade.”

As currently designed, the Rockets certainly don’t have the look of anything near a championship team. But they do have a key building block in Harden, a versatile weapon who — if the salary-cap gymnastics are performed well — can be augmented by talented players interested in playing with him.

That’s how it happened it Miami.

Meanwhile, in Phoenix, the Suns — winners of four of their last five games — may be gelling just in time to make it even more difficult to find a building block of their own.