The clear plot line in this series is undoubtedly James Harden going up against his former team. Harden, who was traded to the Houston Rockets days before the season began, has enjoyed a break-out first season in Houston, and has lead many to wonder if the Thunder can repeat as Western Conference champions without him.
“I knew it was going to happen like this, for some reason,” Harden said. “That’s the beauty of it, that’s what basketball is.”
Harden, who couldn’t agree to terms to extend his contract past this season in Oklahoma City, led the Rockets to a 122-119 win on February 20th, scoring a career high 46 points.
But the focus for Scott Brooks and the Thunder is not on Harden alone.
“He’s a good player. He had a great year, a regular-season All-Star. He has helped their team get to the playoffs with all of the work he has put in,” Brooks said. “They have some good players around him, too. Just like us, we’re not a one- or two-man team. We’re a good team and they’re a good team. We’re going to be focused on stopping all their players.
“It’s definitely not going to be, `How are we going to stop James?’ It’s always about how are we going to stop the Houston Rockets from scoring on us.”
Kevin Martin, who took the role of replacing Harden as the Thunder’s new sixth man, had a solid season, averaging 14 points, while coming off the bench for the first time since his early days.
Kevin Durant is coming in focused on completing a mission. When he leads his Thunder team onto the court Sunday night, all emotions for his former teammate, Harden, will go out the window.
“That was so long ago.” Durant said. “So much stuff has happened since then. We’ve got Kevin Martin, guys have gotten better and James has moved on,” he said. “It’s the Thunder versus the Rockets. That’s all we’re focused on.”
Durant came up short of winning his fourth consecutive scoring title to Carmelo Anthony, but that title is far behind Durant’s mind. The series will feature two of the NBA’s top three teams in scoring, with Houston averaging 106 points per game and Oklahoma City right behind at 105.7. A big part of the Thunder’s preparations has been getting ready to slow down the transition game of the Rockets, who like to run even after an opponent’s made basket.
“There’s no celebrations.” Brooks said. “There’s no frustrations with a call that didn’t go your way because while you’re doing it, they’re scoring at the other end.”
Complaining to the referees is not only one thing the Thunder must look to cut down if they want to stop the Rockets in transition, but it has also cost them throughout the regular season. Russell Westbrook tied the league lead with 15 technical fouls, while Durant and Kendrick Perkins recorded 12 each.
The Rockets must expect performances from Harden like this one if they expect to pull off an upset: