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Harden makes himself into vital piece of Thunder's young core

"I would have to agree with that," said Scott Brooks, coach of Harden and his auspicious Thunder teammates. "I was always pushing him last season, early in the year: 'OK, James, look at this opportunity -- you had an opportunity to attack or an opportunity to shoot.' And he would always kick himself in the butt, 'You're right, you're right, you're right.'

"I haven't had that conversation yet this year," said Brooks. "So that's good."

It could turn out to be better than good. Harden has begun his third NBA season by emerging as the third-leading scorer of a Finals contender that has been seeking a third star to supplement Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Through Monday, the 6-foot-5 Harden is averaging 16.5 points while shooting 45.4 percent, in addition to his annual improvement in rebounds (4.0 per game this season) and assistants (3.4).

Most impressive is that Harden has made himself so important to the best team in the West while coming off the bench. His secondary role hasn't necessarily won him a lot of respect with rival coaches, who initially failed to vote Harden to the Rookie-Sophomore game at All-Star Weekend last year (Harden wound up scoring 30 points as a last-moment replacement for injured Tyreke Evans). But his experience shows why players shouldn't always want to be pushed into the starting lineup early in their careers.

If Harden had been starting for the Thunder, it's likely he would have served as a spot-up afterthought behind the ball-dominating Durant and Westbrook. Not that Harden couldn't have managed that role -- he has the potential to be a terrific shooter -- but the Thunder drafted him with the No. 3 pick in 2009 with the idea that he would be much more. "He's Paul Pierce version 2, except that he's a better passer," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers before a 97-88 loss to the visiting Thunder on Monday. "He plays at a great NBA speed -- he came into the league playing at that speed. I don't think a coach has ever said he's going too fast. He has a great tempo about him, an unbelievable feel."

His ability to control the pace is not unlike that of the recently retired Brandon Roy. "He kills you with simplicity," agreed Rivers.

Harden's impact is two-fold. Given the opportunities to take charge while Durant and Westbrook are resting, he has turned the second unit into the Thunder's most productive rotation, providing an advantage that has contributed to Oklahoma City's 12-2 start.

But Harden's long-term impact may be even more important, because the Thunder recognize they need to develop their passing game. In order to make it more difficult to defend Durant and Westbrook in the crunch of the playoffs, they must generate ball movement from side to side. The Thunder rank No. 5 in scoring and No. 15 in playmaking, and against the best postseason defenses it won't be good enough for them to generate 13 assists for their 36 field goals, as they did here Monday against the Celtics.

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The Thunder are going to need Harden's playmaking and vision. "James is somewhat of an artist for our team," said Thunder GM Sam Presti. "He sees things a little bit differently. It's almost as if he's a right-brained player. He's an abstract thinker on the court -- he's not simply connecting the dots, but he's seeing things and that gives us a different dimension."

Harden's King Tut beard and lefty game are symptomatic of his unusual point of view. The Thunder traded Jeff Green to the Celtics last February not only to enhance their defense by acquiring center Kendrick Perkins, but also to create the opportunities that Harden has been seizing lately. "The way he looks at things really carries over to his selflessness and willingness to accept his role," said Presti. "He takes a different perspective."

Harden's style has surprised coaches throughout his young career. He arrived at Artesia High School in Lakewood, Calif., as a heavyset, 6-1 asthmatic who had a reputation for faking injuries in order to ease through the more strenuous times of practice. By the summer of his senior year he had slimmed down, grown up and was being recruited by UCLA and other powers. He spent the next two years at Arizona State, becoming a First Team All-America while building an NCAA Tournament team out of a Pac-10 program that had been 2-16 in conference play before he arrived.

"I think that's why I'm the player I am now," said Harden. "I didn't get as much recognition or attention as other guys coming out of high school, or even being the third pick overall I still wasn't talked about as much. And I'm fine with it. As long as I can get better and work hard and help my team win, that's all that matters."

His potential to complement and elevate Durant and Westbrook were attractive to the Thunder. Much like Manu Ginobili -- another left-hander who has played off the bench -- he has the potential to become a star without diminishing his teammates. "He's so confident that he can get to the basket," said backup big man Nick Collison, who has developed an impressive two-man game with Harden. "He knows a lot of the work is done before he catches the ball. When we play dribble-handoff, he has the option to go back-door or go off, and he does a good job of setting his man up so that his man has to give something up.

"Rarely do you see him catch the ball when a man's up on him and he's dead -- he's always got the momentum going forward. He does that better than everybody else."

Harden's reticence to shoot wasn't a problem of confidence. In his first two seasons he was trying to understand how to do the most good. "I'm such a passer," he said. "My mindset is to pass first, create shots for them, make them better. This year I've just been aggressive. I still have that mindset of passing the ball, and being aggressive and attacking to the basket is going to draw more attention, and that way I can find my teammates. Being in attack mode is something I try to bring into every single game, and that's what's making me be so successful."

Their success is his success. That was the goal all along.