OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — For James Harden, the notion that he could impact a game just as much off the bench as he would from the starting lineup didn’t really click until he was forced to test it out.
When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded starters Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic to Boston in the middle of last season, it put Harden in a bigger role — even if he still was the first player off the bench.
In his first season fully understanding the role, Harden won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award after leading all bench players in scoring.
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“A lot more opportunities have come my way,” Harden said Thursday after accepting the award. “All I did was just took advantage of them.”
Harden, who starred collegiately at Arizona State, averaged 16.8 points on career-best 49 percent shooting this season, and he recorded his first career 40-point game last month in a win over the Suns in Phoenix. The bearded combo guard also became known in the final week of the regular season when he sustained a concussion while taking an elbow from the Los Angeles Lakers’ Metta World Peace.
He recovered in time to return for the playoffs and was the star of the Thunder’s fourth-quarter comeback to beat Dallas in the clinching Game 4 of their opening round sweep.
Although Harden is a bench player, coach Scott Brooks refers to him as his sixth starter and gives him the minutes a front-line player would normally get. His 31.4 minutes were second-most among reserves this season — a touch less than Dallas’ Jason Terry — and more than about half the starters in the league.
“Most of the time in the second quarter and the fourth quarter, I’m out there with the starters finishing games,” Harden said. “That came with that trust, from my rookie year to now, being out there in the fourth quarter, he’s giving me the ball, letting me make plays.”
Lou Williams, who led Philadelphia in scoring despite not starting a single game this season, was second in the balloting.
Harden got 115 of the 119 first-place votes and three of the second-place votes, getting left of one ballot. Williams got three first-place votes and Chicago’s Taj Gibson got the other one.
Terry, the 2009 Sixth Man Award winner, was third in overall points and perhaps demonstrated best to Harden what the top bench player can mean to a team during the Mavericks’ run to last year’s NBA title — including a win over Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals.
Harden said his view on not starting is: “If we’re winning championships, I have no problem.”
That’s not the way he felt after getting drafted third overall in 2009.
“At first, as a rookie, I didn’t get it. I just thought I was going to go out there and score and just do all the other things that every other player thought,” Harden said. “It took me three years to embrace that role.”
Harden said everything changed after last season’s trade deadline, when Green — who had been the team’s third option behind All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — and fellow starter Krstic were traded away for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson.
“At that point, he really understood that I have to be more of an all-around player, to have an impact,” Brooks said.
Brooks decided to stick with defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha as his starting shooting guard this season, but he made sure Harden understood that his minutes would line up with the usual breaks for Durant and Westbrook and Harden could be the featured player during those stretches.
“You have an opportunity if you don’t start to be the facilitator and to be a scorer and to do everything during those minutes that Russell and Kevin are on the bench getting their rest,” Brooks told him.
“That’s intriguing for James. He has six or seven minutes a half where he has to do everything — keep the scoreboard moving and lead us on the defensive end.”
Harden shined, increasing his scoring output from 12.2 points per game to 16.8, improving his shooting percentage in all areas and recording more assists in 62 games this season than he did in a full 82-game schedule a season earlier.
And now, he has something else to be known for besides his trademark beard and that elbow to the head he took from World Peace. The 22-year-old is the second-youngest player to win the Sixth Man Award and only the fifth of the 30 recipients to be 25 years old or younger.
Ben Gordon was the youngest to win it, at age 21 with Chicago in 2005.
“He has a great game and he has a cool look. His beard, that is a cool look,” Brooks said. “I didn’t like it at first but it’s growing on me. I would never want him to shave it.”