The question that Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy discussed midway through the first quarter of Game 2 between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks is one that has come up many times. How about that Kendrick Perkins trade, Breen asked, noting the huge trade deadline move that gave the Thunder an extra gear and derailed the Boston Celtics. It's an issue that's been dissected over and over this year, but on a national broadcast, you can never be sure whether your audience has actually followed it.
The three men began talking, recycling the same storylines for a while. But then, Van Gundy spoke up and offered something really profound. "This trade," he said (and I'm paraphrasing) "was as much about giving more time for Serge Ibaka and James Harden than anything."
It's true. Removing Jeff Green from the equation has made a huge difference for both players and the team. But whereas Ibaka was already playing well in limited minutes, Harden was actually struggling. His so-so performance over the first half of the season was concerning enough for GM Sam Presti to nearly trade him instead of Green. Even though Harden is so young, Presti was making a big leap of faith hoping he would turn it around.
Three months later, and here we are. Lost in the shuffle of the Russell Westbrook story is that Harden was the man who really won Game 2 for the Thunder. With 23 points on just nine shot attempts, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals, Harden flashed the kind of all-around game teams constantly wish their young shooting guards can provide. Few can, but Harden did, and he's been doing it for three months now. Also, he's 21.
In a postseason where there's been some lack of chemistry at times between Oklahoma City's two stars, the truly dangerous thing is that they may now have a third player that can enhance the other two.
Harden's development into what he is now is a bit complicated. He was a really unique prospect coming out of college, but because his skills were misunderstood, he was stuck with the dreaded "good at many things, not great at anything" label. Those kinds of prospects are very difficult for coaches, who tend to look for players who can bring specific skills to the table. In truth, Harden did have some very specific unique skills. Few shooting guards were as good with the ball in their hands as Harden was with Arizona State, and his playmaking skills allowed Herb Sendek's motion offense to thrive. Also, after looking skinny in college, Harden managed to blow away all the athletic tests at the combine. That transformation has allowed him to elevate and compete against NBA athletes and blew away one of his supposed weaknesses.
These are unique talents, but many missed them because they were trying to place Harden in a shooting guard bubble. Shooting guards are supposed to shoot, and Harden wasn't a great catch-and-shoot player in college. But in a league where guards increasingly create more offense for themselves, Harden's clever pick-and-roll ability was a tremendous skill. Luckily, Presti and the Thunder recognized it and drafted him for it.
So predicting Harden could play wasn't very hard to do if you paid attention. Predicting he could play like this, though, was a much tougher thing and required a bit of a transformation. In his rookie year, Harden was afforded many minutes without Kevin Durant and Westbrook, which allowed him to play to his strengths. Eventually, though, he had to learn how to play with them, and that's where the sophomore struggles came in. Harden started getting lost in the shuffle as more shots went to those two players, and his confidence suffered. In many games in the first half of the season, he was searching for his comfort zone in all the wrong places. Something had to change.
Here's where the Green trade came in. Both Green and Harden were struggling this season with their shot, and Presti realized that he needed to figure out whose confidence could be restored. Presti chose Harden. And since then, a lightbulb has gone off. Harden's playoff exploits are only a continuation of a trend that began after the all-star break. Here are some key numbers:
- Pre All-Star Break: 25.7 minutes per game, 10.3 points per game, 49.8% eFG% (weighing three-pointers), 3.75 FTA/game.
- Post All-Star Break + playoffs: 29.6 minutes per game, 14.9 points per game, 55.1% eFG%, 4.7 FTA/game