Home Not So Sweet Home
James Harden returned to Oklahoma City. His homecoming, however, was forgettable.
by Sean Ceglinsky / @seanceglinsky
James Harden returned home, so to speak, on Wednesday night. His former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, did not necessarily welcome him back with open arms, however. The sellout crowd of 18,203 at Chesapeake Energy Arena was not particularly friendly, either.
A member of the Houston Rockets after spending the first three years of his NBA career with the Thunder, Harden faced Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook along with the rest of his former running mates and struggled from start to finish in a 120-98 loss. His final stat line: 17 points on 3-16 shooting from the field with 3 assists and 2 rebounds. Not a night to remember.
“It felt good to compete against those guys and finally get this over with,” Harden said. “Now, I can continue on with the season.”
Before the opening tip, members of the media gathered in front of the Rockets’ locker room with the hopes of receiving a headline-worthy soundbite. An impromptu press conference, in fact, was called in order for Harden to meet the demands of beat writers and bloggers.
Harden disappeared thereafter, presumably with the hopes of avoiding additional distractions. He finally re-emerged about 45 minutes before the opening tip, exited the trainer’s room and was greeted in the hallway by Durant and Westbrook, among others. Autograph seekers as well.
“It was crazy seeing him before the game and seeing him in a different uniform was a little different,’’ Durant said about Harden after finishing with 37 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists. “We moved past it though. We were happy to see him and we’re glad he is doing well out there in Houston. It was a good win and it was good to see him. Good luck to him the rest of the way.”
During the pre-game festivities, Harden appeared to be, dare I say, upbeat. Familiar faces in the crowd were many, a factor that figured to be somewhat reassuring. And when his name was announced in the Rockets’ starting lineup, spectators were surprisingly pleasant, an act of gratitude perhaps given his body of work. The mood in the building was decidedly different once play started.
Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka were focused on making Harden feel as uncomfortable as possible in the first quarter. It did not take long for the boo-birds to come out either.
Harden missed his four shots and had a pair of turnovers before heading to the bench with 2:35 left in the first quarter. Things did not get much better thereafter. He got into an altercation with Hasheem Thabeet underneath the basket in the second quarter that resulted in a technical foul and Harden’s first points of a game, on a free-throw, with 8:54 remaining before the break.
His struggles were not merely on the offensive end of the floor. Harden fouled Durant on a three-pointer in the second quarter and following the made free-throw for the four-point play, the noise from the fans reached a fevered pitch. The place was rocking and Harden fueled the fire.
“The Thunder are the biggest ticket in town, people are passionate about basketball,’’ said Oklahoma native Anthony Rounds, 19, a freshman forward at Riverside College in California. “Back in the day, it was college football, with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, that was big. Now it’s hoops. When a guy like James Harden leaves the team for more money, and the spotlight, the fan base does not appreciate stuff like that. He had a good thing in Oklahoma City. Its’ gone now, though.’’
For those who have Harden on their fantasy basketball team, you might want to look away. His first half numbers: 3 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 turnovers. He was 0-8 from the field, 0-2 from the three-point arc and 3-5 at the line. The Thunder also blocked four of his shots.
Harden could not get off the floor fast enough. With his head down, he sprinted toward the locker room at intermission. Making eye-contact with hecklers was not a priority.
“I think James was probably pressing a little bit. I’m not sure he would admit it,’’ said assistant coach Kelvin Sampson, who was filling in for head honcho Kevin McHale on Wednesday following the recent death of his daughter. “I’ve watched him play every game thus far this year, and he’s been playing really, really well lately. But I thought tonight he was pushing a little bit.”
Harden converted his second field goal of the game, a layup, at the 11:09 mark of the third quarter. Yes, you read that correctly, his second field goal. Minutes later, he was fouled on a three-pointer. He knocked down all three free-throws despite the presence of shirtless Thunder fan who was wearing a Mexican-style wrestling mask and shouting through a megaphone behind the basket.
Credit is given where credit is due: Harden cracked a smile after the sequence.
It was more of the same the rest of the way. The fans were unrelenting during the fourth quarter. Of course, Durant & Co. did not let up as Harden managed a three-pointer and two free-throws before exiting for good with 2:33 left on the clock. “Every day at practice we would go to war,’’ Harden said. “I know what each and every one of those guys do, and do well, and vice versa.’’
Apparently so. Perhaps that best explains the struggles he had in his proverbial homecoming. Good thing is, Harden does not have to return to Oklahoma City again this season. So there’s no need for a welcome mat Thunder fans. Not like that was going to happen anyway.