Offensively, he played a near-perfect game.
Harden needed just 19 field-goal attempts to reach 46 points, connecting on 14 of his looks. He buried seven of his eight shots from three and 11 of his 12 attempts at the free-throw line.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Harden had no problem denting his impressive field-goal percentage with a half-court heave in the final seconds of the third quarter. His golden touch only rewarded him for the attempt.
But, as was the case during his Oklahoma City days, Harden impacted the game through more than just his scoring. He snared eight rebounds in his 44-plus minutes. His six assists to two turnovers demonstrated his control of the basketball, and he negated one of those turnovers with a steal of his own.
He scored 14 points over the game's final 6:30, helping Houston erase all of a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit. With his Rockets trailing by three with under three minutes to play, Harden gave Serge Ibaka a dizzying display of dribbles before nailing a three-pointer that tied the game for the first time since the 6:46 mark of the second quarter:
Harden dribbles Ibaka into a trance and step-back 3 ties it up.— Fran Blinebury (@franblinebury) February 21, 2013
If Harden truly held no hard feelings toward his former employer, he definitely had a funny way of showing it:
You guys, James Harden has 44 points on 19 shots against the Thunder. Holy vengeance.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) February 21, 2013
A pair of free throws in the game's closing seconds were merely parting gifts for his friends:
Harden sinks both and now has a career-high 46 points with eight rebounds and six assists against his former team.— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) February 21, 2013
Harden and the Thunder were unable to agree on a contract extension before the season, which led to Oklahoma City shipping him to Houston in a six-player deal just days before opening night.
He's since embraced his new club and the superstar role (and the max contract) they've given him. His 26.1 points per game is nearly a 10-point increase from his previous career-high (16.8). It's also the fifth-best scoring average of any player in the NBA.
As for the Thunder, they've handled his departure so far. Wednesday's loss was just the team's 15th in its first 54 games.
With a talented core led by superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, regular-season success was to be expected.
Of course, postseason success is another, more important expectation. And simply finding their way back to the NBA Finals isn't quite the success level fans are hoping for.
And that's where the loss of Harden will be truly felt.
Analysts held off on any doomsday predictions when the team traded him. They pointed to the incoming Kevin Martin's ability to offset the loss of Harden's scoring.
To a certain degree, they were correct. Martin's clearly not the scorer that Harden is this season, but his 15.0 points per game mirrors Harden's 2011-12 output.
The problem with that logic, though, is Harden was more than just a scorer for the Thunder. He was often coach Scott Brooks' late-game initiator, saddled with the delicate task of balancing the offensive touches for Durant and Westbrook. When Harden needed to score, he could, but that wasn't his primary objective.
Removing Harden from the equation leaves Durant and Westbrook as the main ball-handlers. While Durant has found his teammates at a career rate this season (4.4 assists per game), it's easier for defenses to flood him with attention when he's controlling the ball. As for Westbrook, his turnover issues (3.6 per game) clearly haven't been solved.
Martin is not a distributing option. If the ball comes his way, he's letting it fly. Second-year point guard Reggie Jackson has played his way into the rotation, but he serves mainly in spot duty for a resting Westbrook.
The team could also benefit from having an identifiable third option on offense, a role Harden once blossomed in. OKC would love to have Ibaka be that player, but his points (and opportunities) tend to fluctuate. Martin has the weapons to fill that role, but his defensive woes have led to Thabo Sefolosha increasing his playing time to a three-year high (28.3 minutes per game).
The Thunder have time left to figure this thing out. They also have the second-best player on the planet (Durant), which makes things a little easier.
But they don't have Harden. And the true cost of his departure may not be realized until playoff time.
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