It was a crushing defeat that ended the Oklahoma City Thunder's fantastic season, but in all of the agony, the Thunder discovered what they are going to do to improve for the 2011-12 season—start James Harden.
Harden's performance in this season's playoffs showed Oklahoma City exactly where he belongs in the rotation—starting. You could begin to see the plans for next season when in Game 5 versus the Dallas Mavericks, Harden played 34 minutes and netted 23 points. Seeing that, it was clear Harden was ready for an increased role.
Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder's current starter at shooting guard, has played fantastic defense all season, but that's the only thing that has kept him in the starting lineup. In his starting role, he averaged 5.1 points, 1.4 assists, and 4.4 rebounds per game this season—hardly enough to keep him in the same role next year.
James Harden played his way into this anticipated starting role by doing a few key things:
Scrappy play: It may not have been as good as Sefolosha's defense, but James Harden did a good job not getting overwhelmed by the opposition when out on the floor. At 6'5", he is one of the taller guards in the league, like Sefolosha (6'7"). With that size, he didn't have to play as tight of defense in order to be effective. His length provided a defense of its own. Harden never backed down on the boards either. He averaged 5.4 rebounds in the playoffs this year, showing that he's not just there to spread out the offense, but to contribute all around.
Taking smart shots: Harden shot .535 from the field in the conference finals, tops on the Thunder over those five games. Normally a three-point shooter, Harden took his opportunities to drive and get to the rim, taking the easier layup over the three.
Unselfish play: Averaging 3.4 assists per game and just 1.6 turnovers, he proved he could distribute the ball without making poor decisions. What's more, he exclaimed he enjoys passing as much as he does shooting, so that's always a plus. Team play always gets you noticed.
If all goes as planned, James Harden should develop exactly as the Thunder planned when they drafted him—to provide support on the offensive end while also bringing an intensity to their already athletic lineup. Harden brings an added threat to the already potent Durant-Westbrook combination. Now the Thunder have their own veritable trio that is going to baffle defenses around the league who try to stop this young, athletic Oklahoma City roster.
James Harden proved through his great playoff performances why he deserves to be a starter for the Thunder. With another hot hand on the floor for 30-some odd minutes, it's going to be a tough draw against Oklahoma City next season.