By Ben Golliver
Wednesday night's game between the Rockets and Thunder has every possible element of a "circle this one in red ink on your calender" showdown, but the player linking the two franchises is doing his best to downplay the significance.
Rockets guard James Harden will return to Oklahoma City for the first time since a surprise trade to Houston just days before the regular season started. While this isn't exactly LeBron James' return to Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena after he "took his talents" to the Heat, emotions are sure to run high.
The Houston Chronicle reports, though, that Harden is trying to take the visit in stride.
“I’m on the road trying to get a win,” Harden said Tuesday. “That’s no different than when we played at Memphis or Atlanta or whatever the case may be.”
“To be honest, I don’t even know,” he said. “It will be good to see some faces, some old teammates and coaches. They’re all my family. I look forward to every single game I play. It’s just another game.”
Swingman Daequan Cook, also included in the trade that sent Harden to the Rockets, wasn't buying it.
“It’s going to be crazy, man. Crazy emotional and very energetic on both sides of the floor for both teams.”
This is an interesting cocktail that includes both good memories and hard feelings on both sides.
Harden became a star during his three years in Oklahoma City after he was selected third in the 2009 draft. He was the Thunder's first pick after moving from Seattle and general manager Sam Presti took him higher than many analysts expected. Harden earned the 2012 Sixth Man Award and was a member of USA Basketball's gold-medal team last summer. He was a favorite son in Oklahoma City, thanks to his massive beard, pick-and-roll mastery and close friendship with All-Star forward Kevin Durant.
ESPN.com had a nice line from Durant on their pairing.
"Chemistry is a big part of this league and we had that with James. We'd been together since we were young pups," Durant said.
Thunder fans, by and large, seemingly couldn't envision a future without Harden as a core piece until Presti abruptly pulled the trade trigger after Harden refused a less-than-max offer in advance of an Oct. 31 deadline. Harden had clearly demonstrated his max worth and the Thunder had equally clearly demonstrated their reluctance to compensate him at that level with major salary commitments already made to Durant, All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook and power forward Serge Ibaka.
That's where the hard feelings come in. Some Thunder supporters believed Harden should have given the team a discount and others believed he should have been more up front about the importance of maximum compensation to him. Harden expressed disappointment with how quickly he was traded after being given a "take it or leave it" ultimatum by Presti.
Both parties have thrived since the move. The Thunder are 11-4, good for a three-game lead in the Northwest Division. They boast the league's No. 3 offense and No. 7 defense. The juggernaut continues. Harden, meanwhile, has smoothly assumed the mantle of No. 1 option. He's the NBA's fifth-leading scorer at 25.1 points per game. He's also roughly $80 million richer thanks to his new contract.
Those are the key elements behind Wednesday's clash. A few other quick things to note. Chesapeake Energy Arena is one of the loudest and most difficult places to play. The Thunder are 63-20 (.759) at home since the start of the 2010-11 season. The fans will be ready. Harden has also shown a flair for the dramatic. Who could forget his Rockets debut against the Pistons: 37 points, 12 assists, six rebounds and four steals? Or how he followed that up with 45 points and seven rebounds against the Hawks two nights later? He's fully capable of channeling the extra juice for good.
If all that wasn't enough, there's one final, unusual element to this mix. The Rockets are playing on the second half of a home/road back-to-back. In between Tuesday's game against the Raptors in Houston and Wednesday's game in Oklahoma City, the Rockets flew from Texas to Minnesota to attend the memorial service of Sasha McHale, the 23-year-old daughter of coach Kevin McHale, who died Sunday after battling lupus. The travel logistics involved were so out of the ordinary that they required special approval from the league office.
Harden posted a number of messages to his Twitter account about Sasha McHale on Wednesday morning.
No one knows exactly how the Rockets and Harden will respond given these circumstances. We do know for sure that this isn't "just another game" by any stretch of the imagination.