Thunder vs. Rockets: Previewing James Harden's return to OKC

Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

The former Thunder star returns to Oklahoma City for the first time on Wednesday night.

The last time James Harden played a game at the Chesapeake Energy Arena, the Thunder were headed to Miami to play Game 3 of the NBA Finals. Three straight losses to the Heat, four months and a contentious salary negotiation later, Harden returns as the leader of an up-and-coming young Rockets team.

While Harden has cooled off from his meteoric start, where he scored 82 points in his first two games, he's still more than justified the max contract Houston gave him. He's averaging 25 points, four rebounds and five assists on 44 percent shooting and is likely in line for his first All-Star appearance.

There just weren't enough shots and minutes for him to spread his wings in Oklahoma City, where he came off the bench to win the Sixth Man of the Year Award in 2012. His departure made sense for both sides, but that doesn't mean there won't be a lot of intrigue when Harden plays in front of the raucous Oklahoma City crowd for the first time. Will he booed? Cheered? And will he come out looking to prove a point to his old teammates?

Even without Harden, Oklahoma City still has an 11-4 record and the best point differential (+8.1) in the NBA. Kevin Durant has embraced the responsibility of assuming some of Harden's play-making duties, averaging 4.5 assists a game, 1.6 higher than his career average. Former Rocket Kevin Martin, meanwhile, has thrived in Harden's role as a sixth man, averaging 16 points on 45 percent shooting, including an eye-popping 49 percent from beyond the arc.

Houston, at 7-7, is still trying to figure out their identity as a team. And while Harden has lived up to the hype, Jeremy Lin, their other big acquisition, has struggled away from Madison Square Garden. Lin is averaging 10 points, six assists and five rebounds, but he's doing it on a remarkably poor 34% shooting from the floor.

Harden may want to prove a point in Oklahoma City, but he'll need a strong game from his back-court mate, especially against Russell Westbrook, who thrives on 1-on-1 challenges and will likely try to disrupt Houston's offensive flow with ball pressure to start the game. And if the season ended today, the Rockets would be one game away from a 2/7 first-round match-up with the Thunder. Now, that would be interesting.

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