OKLAHOMA CITY — The first indication that this would be a strange night hit James Harden the moment he walked into Chesapeake Arena Wednesday afternoon as a member of the Houston Rockets and headed, not in the least bit instinctively, for the visitors’ locker room.
Wow, this is weird, Harden told himself.
“You don’t really get to realize it until you’re actually in the position, just warming up on the other side,” Harden said. “It feels kind of weird. But it is what it is.”
Harden and the Rockets spent an emotional Wednesday morning 800 miles away in Minnesota, a span of a several hours they will likely never forget, attending the funeral of coach Kevin McHale‘s daughter, Sasha. She lost her battle with lupus on Saturday at age 23, the same age as Harden, the Rockets’ new $80 million man.
Later, it became a difficult night Harden and his team will just as soon forget. Harden, loudly cheered by the capacity crowd during pregame introductions, got a quick reminder as to the deafening roar that envelops the Thunder’s arena, earning it the nickname Loud City.
Several times in the early going, as Harden’s jumpers clanked off the rim and his drives were met with resistance at the rim, the crowd roared and Harden seemed to peer into the stands as he jogged back down the court.
This was no homecoming. It felt more like trespassing.
“It just felt good to be competing against those guys and get it over with,” Harden said. “To play here and get it over with and continue on with the season.”
Harden finished the first half 0-for-8 from the floor. His first bucket, a driving layup that Serge Ibaka almost seemed to allow go by him, finally came one minute into the third quarter. He’d go 1-for-13 before dropping a couple of 3-pointers well into the Thunder having salted away a 120-98 victory.
Harden finished with 17 points, nine coming at the free-throw line, as he made just three of his 16 shot attempts, had three assists and three turnovers. He played nearly 40 minutes after logging 44 Tuesday night and then flying from Houston to Minnesota to Oklahoma City in a dizzying span of about 14 hours.
“I think he had to experience this. Sometimes you just have to go through the moment,” acting coach Kelvin Sampson said. “I thought he was pressing a little bit. He may not admit it, but I’ve seen him play every game. He’s been playing well. I thought he was pressing a little bit.”
Harden, averaging 25.1 points on the season, didn’t admit it, saying he was relaxed. But, really, how could he be? It was almost unfair to ask him to take on this emotional challenge hours after he sadly watched his new coach say goodbye to his daughter one last time.
“He had a lot of things swirling through his head,” Sampson said.
That a shoulder injury prevented Chandler Parsons from playing only exacerbated Harden’s situation. The lanky 6-foot-9 Parsons would typically defend Kevin Durant. Instead it was Harden on the taller, longer-limbed three-time scoring champ to start the game and Durant at times draping Harden.
One fourth-quarter sequence summed up Harden’s night. The Rockets hung in about as long as they possibly could, and had a chance to cut the Thunder deficit to single digits early in the fourth quarter. Harden got by Thabo Sefolosha and into the lane, looked to have a bead on the rim, but as he went up, Kevin Durant turned him away and then buried a 3-pointer at the other end to crank the lead back up to 13.
“I just couldn’t finish the ball at the basket when I had a couple of good looks,” Harden said. “I think other guys feel the same way. We had opportunities, easy shots that we can make — just didn’t tonight.”
Meanwhile, Harden’s replacement, 6-foot-7 shooting guard Kevin Martin, scored 17 points on 6-for-14 shooting. His transition with the Thunder continues to be as smooth as his 3-point shot. Durant scored 37 and Westbrook had 14 points and nine assists. The Thunder’s offense, ranked second in scoring, hasn’t missed a beat, and might be better.
As much as Harden wanted this to be just another game as he said Tuesday when the Rockets dusted off the Toronto Raptors, it wasn’t — couldn’t be. One month removed from the trade that rocked Harden, the Thunder and the league, emotions are still being sorted out.
The swiftness of the trade completed just five days prior to the start of the season caught Harden and his former teammates off-guard.
“It happened very fast,” Harden said. “One minute I was eating dinner with my family, the next minute I’m heading to Houston. It happened pretty quick.”
As Durant and Kendrick Perkins immediately phoned Martin as the official welcoming committee, Nick Collison went to Harden’s house to see how he was doing. Thoughts swirled, emotions ran the gamut.
“Yeah, there [are] emotions involved for sure,” Collison said. “It’s a tough situation. We had guys that were here and now we have different guys so, yeah, it’s definitely an adjustment. Those things go into it, but the good thing about it is we can keep those to ourselves. We don’t have to tell the media about that type of stuff, and and we just come out and know that really what we have to do is play with the new guys. But it’s definitely been an adjustment and continues to be an adjustment.”
Harden acknowledged that he’s dealt with, and is still dealing with a range of emotions: highs and lows, disappointment and excitement, all unlike anything before.
“As far as being with this team, this organization for three or four years, being with Kevin and Russell [Westbrook], the Finals and then Olympics, and then [the trade] happened so fast,” he said. “Basically, being traded, [moving] cities, a different role, different organization — it was completely new to me. I just try to go day by day and just try to figure it out.”
The best part of Wednesday will have been a quiet, reflective and short flight home to Houston, and a much-needed Thursday off to decompress.