By Ben Golliver
The Thunder defeated the Rockets 120-98 at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Wednesday night. It was a commanding blowout win in James Harden's first game in Oklahoma City since being traded to Houston last month.
• The Rockets walked into a booby trap in this one. The Thunder, always dangerous at home, had every possible advantage. Houston was finishing a home/road back-to-back; Oklahoma City had a day off to prepare. Houston spent Wednesday morning attending a memorial service for the daughter of Kevin McHale, who died after battling lupus. Oklahoma City clearly spent Wednesday tightening up the game plan for how to defend Harden, who entered as the NBA's fifth-leading scorer at 25.1 points.
The Thunder's plan worked perfectly. The Thunder guards applied relentless pressure on Harden on the perimeter and their big men provided well-timed help when he executed his smooth drives to the hoop. Harden usually creates space for himself by changing pace and shifting gears. Oklahoma City's guards disrupted his comfort zone and forced him to go from 0-to-60 off the dribble to shake free when a quick first step isn't necessarily his strongest suit. The Thunder's front line has paint-filling bigs (Kendrick Perkins, Hasheem Thabeet), athleticism and shot-blocking (Serge Ibaka) and a crafty charge-taker (Nick Collison). Harden struggled with each, missing all eight of his first-half field-goal attempts while committing two turnovers and getting his shot blocked multiple times in the process.
The Rockets couldn't make Oklahoma City pay for its intense pressuring and extra second-level attention to Harden because they couldn't hit jumpers. Playing without injured forward Chandler Parsons, their top three-point shooter and second-leading scorer, the Rockets hit just 4-for-12 from long range through the first three quarters. This made for too many tight spaces for Harden, who finished with 17 points on 3-for-16 shooting. On the bright side, at least he wasn't booed during introductions upon his return.
• Harden played a "C-" minus game but even an "A+" night wasn't going to be enough. The talent disparity between these two teams, in all facets, is too vast. OKC came into the game ranked No. 3 in offensive efficiency (points scored per possession) and No. 7 in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession). Both marks are reflective of a hard-working team and a roster that still fits together nicely, even in the post-Harden era. This is a team that can beat you in so many ways. On Wednesday, the Thunder stuck to the most direct route, feeding three-time defending scoring champion Kevin Durant, who was way too much for any of Parsons' replacements to handle. Durant tied his season high with 37 points, shooting 13-of-22 from the field, 2-of-4 from three-point range, and 9-of-10 from the free-throw line. Big-time offensive efficiency. The cherry on top was a second-quarter four-point play. Right about then, it was clear that this would be OKC's night.
Durant topped 30 points for just the fourth time in Oklahoma City's 16 games this season. Last year, by comparison, he hit for at least 30 in OKC's first four games. That said, he's starting to hit his volume-scoring stride. Over the last five games, Durant is averaging 31.2 points and shooting 49.4 percent. He's also climbed to second in the league in scoring with 26.6 points, trailing only Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (27.7 points).
• NBA referees have found themselves in some sticky situations over the past few days. In Sacramento, a rare block/charge double foul was called when the two officials involved both refused to back down. In Boston, officials had to pull a pile of Celtics and Nets off of each other after a baseline scrum spilled into the stands. The crew in Oklahoma City had its hands full, too.
Referee Marc Davis, the same official who once issued a technical foul to Reggie Evans for high-fiving a teammate and the same official who was bumped by Rajon Rondo during last year's playoffs, was in the middle of it. Early in the second quarter, Davis ejected Thabeet after he talked a little trash to Harden after blocking his shot. Thabeet and his teammates looked around, in shock, because he was given a straight ejection and not merely a technical foul. During the exchange of words, Rockets center Omer Asik pushed Thabeet away from Harden and into Davis. That contact, Davis indicated after the game, is what drew the ejection. With Davis sticking to his guns on the automatic ejection for contacting an official, Thabeet had no choice but to jog off to the locker room. Here's video of the scene.
Then, in a "Have you ever seen this before?" twist, the officiating crew conferred and decided to bring back Thabeet, issuing him only a technical foul for his trash talk and rescinding the ejection because his contact with Davis had been inadvertent. As Harden shot the technical free throw, Thabeet jogged back out to the Thunder bench, as teammate Russell Westbrook sat on the bench laughing at the turn of events. Thabeet was greeted by a standing ovation from the home crowd. Hilarious and strange. Here's video of Thabeet's un-ejection.
*****Following the game, DailyThunder.com reported Thunder coach Scott Brooks' reaction: "That was, um, unique. ... He came back, our crowd went nuts. It was like Willis Reed. I'm joking."