Updated: November 29, 2012, 3:31 AM ET

1. Loss Follows Emotional Swings For Harden

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- James Harden will never forget the feeling. Or the phone call. Or the restaurant. He didn't need to reflectively stroke that famous beard too long when someone asked where he was when he found out he was really being traded to the Houston Rockets.

"Cheesecake Factory," Harden said.

He told the story on his first night back in the old neighborhood, one month removed from that most disorienting dinner interruption, never expecting that this reunion was going to be so thoroughly unsavory in its own right.

Yet there was Harden late Wednesday, surrounded by reporters in the unfamiliar visitors' locker room at Chesapeake Energy Arena, forced to digest a 120-98 hammering by the Oklahoma City Thunder in which the bushy new face of the Houston Rockets missed his first nine shots and wheezed to maybe the hardest 17 points he has ever scored.

James Harden
Kevin Jairaj/US PresswireJames Harden's returning 3-for-16 line was not one to remember.

"It just feels good to be competing against those guys and finally get it over with," Harden said, trotting out the weary words he would repeat a few more times before the crowd dispersed. "To play here and get this over with and now continue on with the season."

Said Rockets caretaker coach Kelvin Sampson: "I think there were some circumstances (impacting Harden's performance). James was pressing a little bit. I'm not sure he would admit it, but ... he had a lot of things swirling through his head tonight."

All of the Rockets did, frankly. They were in the building nearly five hours before the opening tip, long before Harden's mostly raucuous welcome back from the locals during introductions, but the ultra-early arrival had nothing to do with Harden's return or the hoopla it generated. The day couldn't have begun more somberly for Houston's 40-strong traveling party, which received clearance from the NBA to spend the morning in Minnesota to attend the funeral of Sasha McHale, who, at the tender age of 23, died Saturday after a lengthy battle with lupus.

Rockets coach Kevin McHale has been away from the team since Nov. 10 to be with his ailing daughter, leaving Sampson in charge. This was the reunion no one in the organization wanted, one they all dreaded, but Harden did come away convinced that the detour to McHale's home state after Tuesday night's home win over Toronto and the presence of so many familiar faces from Houston brought the grieving father "some kind of joy."

"Really, really, really emotional," Sampson said.

From there, though, Houston had to quickly pull itself together for a game bubbling with its own emotions. A game that had Kevin Durant, on the other side, claiming afterward that he was too geeked to sleep or even nap in anticipation of playing against "my brothers" and, more specifically, seeing what Harden looked like up close in Rockets red after they crossed paths in pregame chapel.

The results were fairly predictable, too. With Chandler Parsons (shoulder) and Carlos Delfino (groin) out injured and unavailable to stretch the floor -- and Thunder defenders knowing Harden's tendencies better than anyone -- they smothered him with relentless aggression and precision. Harden wound up seeing six of his 16 shots blocked by a defense that made it immediately clear that there would be nothing resembling the lefty's 82-point spree in his first two games after OKC stunned the entire NBA by trading him to Houston on Oct. 27 when contract extension talks collapsed.

"To be honest, I thought it was a very slight chance a trade would happen," Harden says now, leaving the impression that he still finds it all somewhat hard to believe.

It's way too early in the game, regardless, for the Thunder to really prove anything in terms of their playoff ceiling without Harden ... but no one was ever going to convince his old, thirsty teammates of that. Russell Westbrook and then Serge Ibaka chased Harden down for vicious swats from behind. Durant (37 points) looked ridiculously locked in offensively, with Ibaka -- whom Thunder management essentially chose to keep over Harden by signing him first -- not far off with his 23 points, nine boards and six blocks. Harden, meanwhile, wound up 3-for-16 from the floor in 39 labored minutes, merely matching new Thunder sixth man Kevin Martin's 17 and falling a point shy of fellow OKC alumnus Daequan Cook's 18. It didn't help that Harden repeatedly over-penetrated straight into defenders who not only know where he likes to go but who are also so familiar with Harden's timing. Hence those six rejections, accounting for nearly half of his misses, that spared Harden, if nothing else, from a round of Bricktown jokes.

Harden likewise got an unwelcome taste of the villain role he insisted beforehand that he'd never experienced, not even in college. A second-quarter exchange with Thunder backup Hasheem Thabeet led not only to the bizarre sight of Thabeet being ejected and then un-ejected by referee Marc Davis ... but also the sounds of lusty boos for Harden when he went to the line for the ensuing free throw.

There were milder boos later when Harden, after a 1-for-13 start, finally splashed home a couple 3s. And now he'll have to wait until the playoffs, or maybe even next season, for his next opportunity to show the residents of Loud City that he can justify the five-year, $80 million max deal Houston gave him, since this was the Rockets' lone scheduled OKC stop of the regular season.

"They look pretty good," Harden conceded, when someone asked this time to grade the team that felt it couldn't afford to keep him.

Said Sampson: "I think he had to experience this. Sometimes you just have to go through the moment. The next time when he comes here, it won't be his first time back.

"James is a tough guy. I don't worry about him."

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