HOUSTON –This wasn’t the plan.
The Beard and James Harden were supposed to keep growing in Oklahoma City.
Now he’s back, looking to trim the Thunder.
It was barely five months ago when Harden locked arms with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as the clock ticked down the last minute of their loss to Miami in The Finals.
That was supposed to be a sign of togetherness, a commitment to return this season to finish the job and embark on a new world order in the NBA.
For three years, they were the core of a team that was said to be different, more of a family bonding together amid a small-town atmosphere.
But even the best families often come apart and the question that remains is just how much was torn from the fabric in OKC when Harden was shockingly traded to Houston five days before the start of the 2012-13 season?
The Thunder are where everyone expected them to be, atop the Northwest Division with one of the best records in the league.
Yet nothing that matters won’t really happen until next June when the Thunder will have a yawning hole in the resume if they are not again playing for a championship.
Harden, of course, is in a totally different place in more ways than geography. The former hit man off the bench in OKC is now the Rockets’ top gun, having grabbed the headlines with explosions of 37 and 45 points in his first two games and is currently the NBA’s fourth-leading scorer (25.1 ppg) as he hangs in the marquee neighborhood with Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Durant and LeBron James.
It will be a homecoming of a different sort tonight (8 ET, NBA TV) when he takes the court for the first time ever in Loud City as an other and not one of those wrapped in the smothering arms of that deafening embrace. Some of his fans may welcome him when his name is introduced, but when he drills a long jumper and runs down the floor holding out three fingers on each hand or slips through the interior defense for a layup, Harden will be the enemy.
It will be a long and emotional day for Harden before he even takes the court. The Rockets flew immediately after Tuesday night’s win at home over Toronto to Minneapolis, where they’ll attend the funeral service of head coach Kevin McHale’s 23-year-old daughter Sasha. Then they’ll get back on their charter plane and fly to Oklahoma City with a scheduled arrival of 3:30 p.m.
Harden said he hasn’t given any thought to how he’ll feel at the 7 p.m tipoff.
“To be honest, I don’t even know,” he said. “It’s gonna be a long day. It will be good to see some faces, old teammates and coaches and my family.
“I’m on the road. I’m on the road trying to get a win. That’s no different than playing at Memphis or at Atlanta, whatever the case may be.
“It’s another game.”
The truth is it is just another one of 82 in the long regular season schedule, one night at the tail end of November that will have little to do with who raises the Larry O’Brien Trophy on the cusp of next summer.
“Won’t be nothing for me,” his old buddy Westbrook said. “Nothing happened to me.”
Except that it did, this deal that sent the league reeling in disbelief. While everyone seems to understand the financial reasons that OKC general manager Sam Presti pulled the trigger, putting the franchise on the road to a firmer long term future, it will be little consolation if Harden’s replacement Kevin Martin doesn’t help shoot the Thunder at least back to another Western Conference title and another crack at the top of the mountain.
That’s all Harden, Durant and Westbrook could think about as they stood on the sidelines that night in Miami, arm-in-arm in defeat, side-by-side secure in the belief that they would keep moving ahead together.
Did he consider for a moment that he would only return to OKC this season for just one game as an outsider?
“To be honest, I didn’t,” Harden said. “Especially coming off The Finals and basically being together (with Durant and Westbrook) all summer with the Olympics. It happened so fast, happened so fast … Everything happens for a reason and now I’m in a different situation.”
The Beard growing among different faces.