Harden struggles in return to Oklahoma City

OKLAHOMA CITY — Used to be, James Harden was cheered, not booed, even when he was bad.

In his return to Oklahoma City as a starter and star for the Houston Rockets, Harden was real bad. He made just 3-of-16 field-goal attempts as his new team dropped a 120-98 decision to his former team on Wednesday night.

Used to be, he was the most-popular player in Thunder blue, thanks to a game with flair and a beard that that was so popular it developed its own 16,000-follower Twitter account. Seemed like coming off the bench for the Thunder only added to his popularity, his mystery and his fame.

Harden was good enough to make the Olympic team. He starred in commercials. He didn’t play in the shadows of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Harden played alongside them, despite coming off the bench and not starting with them.

Those were the days.

Used to be, his team could survive and win when he had an off-night, thanks to Durant and/or Westbrook. On those off-nights, Harden could quietly slip out the back door, avoid those pesky questions and redeem himself the next time out in a new game and a different arena.

Not tonight, old friend.

This one’s on Harden. There’s nowhere to hide, because this is exactly what he wanted.

The Thunder dominated, while Harden struggled and missed shot after shot. These days, when Harden is off, the Rockets lose.

“James had an off-night,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “That’s the bottom line. He missed some shots he would normally make. We didn’t do anything special. He saw bodies, hands and a lot of activity. That’s what we want our opponents to see.”

Harden was cheered exactly once — during the player introductions. He was jeered after missed shots (often) and then the unspeakable happened. He he was booed after getting into an altercation with Hasheem Thabeet, which led to a Thabeet technical and led to Harden becoming the villain.

“I’ve never been in that position here before,” Harden said.

Harden’s a star because Houston made him one and paid him accordingly to prove the point. But that doesn’t mean it’s official. His ascent started and was nurtured in Oklahoma City. His future? We’ll see.

Harden wound up with 17 points, scoring nine of those from the line. But instead of slipping into the Oklahoma City night, Harden had to answer for his off-night.

“I just couldn’t finish the ball,” he said. “I had good looks.”

Harden was back in Oklahoma City for the first time since being traded to Houston just days before the regular season started. It was a move that shook up both rosters, brought up hard feelings and also brought Kevin Martin to Oklahoma City.

There’s no sense declaring the Thunder the winner on the trade. Not yet. Harden has been great in stretches, yet Martin has been more than just a complementary piece, taking over Harden’s role off the bench. No winner Wednesday, but there’s a feeling the Oklahoma City win did mean something a bit more than just a November ‘W.’

Durant scored 37 points, even extending three fingers to the floor after a first-half 3-pointer, clearly mocking Harden’s move he used to make after hitting 3’s here in Oklahoma City. Martin scored 17 points on 6-of-14 shooting, and while Westbrook wasn’t great, going 6-of-15 for 14 points, the end result was a first-round win over their former teammate.

Harden said he wasn’t pressing or putting too much emphasis on the game, but that doesn’t mean it’s the truth, especially after he said, “It felt good just to finally get this over with. Now I can continue on with the season.”

Coming into the game, he was a 35-percent shooter in Houston’s seven losses, but a 54-percent shooter in the Rockets’ seven wins. That’s the numbers of a guy who wants to be the center of attention, the center of the offense and at the top of the marquee.

“I sacrificed to make the Thunder better,” Harden said before the game.

Wednesday was a manifestation of his reward. Houston is 7-8 and a playoff long shot. Yes, Harden has his max contract, and yes, he’s now the director of an offense that has no other options.

Patrick Patterson led the Rockets with 27 points, former Thunder guard Daequan Cook added 18 points and Jeremy Lin only scored six points on a 3-of-7 performance. That’s not a formula for offensive diversity. That’s the formula for getting in line for a lottery pick.

But that’s not Harden’s worry. He wanted all this.

“James was pressing a little bit,” said Rockets interim coach Kelvin Sampson, whose team flew in late to Oklahoma City after attending the funeral for coach Kevin McHale’s daughter earlier Wednesday. “I’m not sure (Harden) would admit it, but I’ve watched him play every game. Tonight he was pressing a little bit.”

Harden very well may become an All-Star. He’s going to put up points and get his stats.

He just didn’t on Wednesday against his former team.