Harden knocks: OKC's high stakes

Does any team need the 2011-12 NBA season to happen more than the Oklahoma City Thunder? If this year gets lost it would be like the projector breaking during the hotel sequence in “Inception” -- there’s still another level to go.

That’s all I could think about while watching James Harden play in the Real Run earlier this week. Harden’s creamsicle-orange Nikes were the only familiar aspect of his attire; nothing about that black uniform said “Thunder.” But watching Harden’s combination of deep 3s and drives to the hoop reminded me of how much fun that Thunder playoff run was, of how close they came to reaching the NBA Finals (like the Heat they won two games against the Mavericks and were within a couple minutes of winning two more).

“You don’t understand how excited we are,” Harden said. “Losing that Western Conference finals motivated us. We have a chance to win the title.”

Except, unlike last summer, when the Thunder gathered in OKC and practically lived in the gym together, this year the lockout prohibits them from using the team facilities. So they’re scattered. Maybe they’ll all meet up somewhere, at some point.

For now Harden just wants to play. He joined Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Derek Fisher and others for some exhibitions in the Philippines last week. He was only back in the United States for a few hours before he headed to Inglewood, Calif., for the Real Run … and he barely came out of that 40-minute contest.

“I’m trying to get my conditioning and get ready,” Harden said.

But what if it’s all for nothing, if he’s running and shooting jumpers for a season that never happens?

“It would be a disaster,” Harden said. “We need both sides to get together and have a season. All of us feel the same around the league.”

He said he and his Thunder teammates haven’t discussed playing overseas if the lockout continues. They want to finish what they started. If the Thunder extend a qualifying offer to Daequan Cook it would mean the they’d have everyone who played in the playoffs last season under contract for next year. And they have the rights to their top eight playoff scorers through 2012-13 as well. Even the Harry Potter series couldn’t maintain that level of continuity.

It’s all predicated on maintaining the momentum, on taking a next step in a journey that took them from a 59-loss team in 2009 to the playoffs in 2010 to the Western Conference finals this year. It’s not hard at all to imagine them in the NBA Finals next year. What is difficult is envisioning a group of players who’ve never played in June winning it all in their first trip to the Finals. The Thunder need 2011-12 to happen so they can be ready for 2012-13.

But like everyone else I’ve talked to, Harden isn’t optimistic about a new collective bargaining agreement being reached.

“Right now it doesn’t look like it’s close to being done,” Harden said. “Hopefully over these few weeks they can come to an agreement and figure something out. Fans players, we don’t know what to do if there’s a lockout. I’ve never experienced it and I don’t want to experience it.”

Playing NBA games in June -- that’s what Harden and the Thunder need to experience playing.