(Eds: Adds details, comments. With AP Photos.)By JEFF LATZKEAP Sports Writer
It started with a few amateur music videos, a couple kids emerging from their teenage years getting together to hang out.
These days, just about anyone can get a taste of the friendship that has blossomed between All-Star Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City Thunder teammate James Harden, most famous in the past two weeks or so for the elbow to the head he took from the Los Angeles Lakers’ Metta World Peace.
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Along with developing into a dangerous third scoring threat for the Thunder, Harden is starting to gain notoriety by starring alongside Durant in commercials. Harden stars opposite Durant in a spot for the movie ”Battleship,” the two playing one-on-one at the Thunder’s old practice gym between images of ships exploding at sea. They show their goofier side alongside Kate Upton in a ”Take a Supermodel to Work” commercial for Skullcandy headphones.
”We just instantly clicked when he got here,” Durant said. ”He’s one of those guys you really respect for what he does, and just a good person to hang around. We’ve been like brothers ever since he’s been here. It’s kind of hard to explain. When he first got here, it was like we’ve known each other for a long time.”
Away from basketball, Durant and Harden started getting together with Jeff Green – who was drafted the same year as Durant but has since been traded to Boston – during Harden’s rookie year two seasons ago. Harden was 20 and Durant 21 and both had the same taste in music, even if Durant had a more reserved personality than Harden, shown by the way he dresses and refuses to trim his beard.
”I bring it out of him,” said Harden, the No. 3 pick in the 2009 draft. ”That’s what I’m here for, on the court off the court. I make him have a good time and laugh. Opposites attract.”
Lately, he’s also playing the best basketball of his three-year career. Harden had the first 40-point game of his career last month in Phoenix, close to where he played at Arizona State, and he took over in the fourth quarter to lead Oklahoma City back from 13 points down for a 103-97 win in Game 4 in Dallas to complete a first-round sweep.
”I think I’ve gotten into a groove this past month, month and a half, just getting a feel for it, especially going into the playoffs, knowing where we came from last year and where we want to go this year,” Harden said. ”Obviously, I want to play my best basketball even when I’m not making shots.”
Harden was the NBA’s top-scoring reserve (averaging 16.8 points) and is a leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, while Durant won the league’s scoring title for the third straight year this season.
Combined with All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, Harden and Durant make up the highest-scoring threesome in the league – better even than Miami All-Stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Coach Scott Brooks said Harden’s offensive performance in the fourth quarter of Game 4, when he scored 15 of his team-high 29 points, went beyond being the best Harden could play.
”That’s about as good as anybody can play,” Brooks said. ”But we have Russell and Kevin can make plays, and they have, and we’ve had a lot of success with all three of them participating in those playmaking duties. That’s what makes us a good team because they all share that responsibility.”
The Dallas performance is the latest proof that Harden is able to carry more of the load. He was a non-factor two years ago in playoff road games, going scoreless in his first two postseason games on the Lakers’ home court.
”That trust has grown. As a rookie, Scotty wouldn’t have put the ball in my hands late in games like that,” Harden said. ”That’s the trust that we’ve built for these past couple years.”
With him the whole way has been Durant. From sitting side-by-side in the Thunder locker room, the two journey across the country to see each other in the offseason at Harden’s home near Los Angeles or Durant’s outside Washington, D.C.
Durant took it particularly hard when Harden was clocked by World Peace late in the regular season and suffered a concussion. He wondered if he’d have been able to prevent Harden’s injury if he hadn’t allowed World Peace to dunk and set off the celebration that resulted in him elbowing Harden.
Fortunately, Harden recovered quickly and was cleared less than a week later, in time for the playoffs.
”He’s just a great person to be around. We hold the same values, morals and we relate to each other,” Durant said. ”He’s one of my best friends.”
They’re also both basketball junkies, and all their time together pays off when it’s time to run a pick-and-roll.
”All that stuff off the court definitely helps us on the court,” Harden said. ”On the court, we bond and we know how to talk to each other. All those things come into play, especially when you’re playing basketball and trying to win a championship.”