1. Loss Follows Emotional Swings For Harden
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.
"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."
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
MVP: Matt Barnes. The Clippers were struggling to keep up with the Wolves early, but the second unit, led by Barnes, closed the gap and propelled Los Angeles past Minnesota.
X factor: Chauncey Billups with the sudden midday-start decision and crunch-time play. The Clippers have been struggling as of late and it seems like a 36-year-old guard coming off an Achilles injury wouldn't help, but Billups' calming persona stabilized the on-court turmoil. At least for one game.
That was ... a tease: Minnesota just got Kevin Love back in a cupboard stripped bare from injury. Los Angeles just started the process to re-integrate Billups and is still waiting on Grant Hill. Two full-strength teams competing is something both teams' fans can get behind.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Carmelo Anthony. Melo was at his cold-blooded best, raining down threes and eviscerating smaller and slower Bucks alike in the paint to the tune of 29 points in only 18 attempts. He also did some yeoman work on the boards and played stout interior defense.
X factor: Pablo Prigioni. For a Knick team that had struggled sans Jason Kidd to maintain their early-season, brutally efficient, unselfish offense, Prigioni gave them some heady point guard play off the bench, finishing with 11 points on 4-for-5 shooting and 7 clever dimes.
That was ... statistically anomalous: Fun Fact -- Steve Novak has made a grand total of two (2) shots in the painted area over the last two seasons. In the fourth quarter, he stole the ball at midcourt and seemed absolutely petrified at the thought of trying to finish at the rim.
Recap | Box score
MVP: In a gritty, sloppy matchup without Mo Williams or Anthony Davis, Al Jefferson's graceful footwork made the difference. His 19-7-3-3-2 line didn't stand out to watch, but Jefferson made a decisive impact.
X factor: Marvin Williams. Marvin hit his head violently on the hardwood in the third and left the game. Before that scary moment, though, Williams provided much-needed energy to Utah: getting to the line, making off-ball cuts, and playing solid defense.
That was ... uninspiring: Offensive basketball got set back about 15 years in the course of this game. Long scoring droughts were the norm, and both teams made fouls, passes, shots, and decisions that defied reason.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Luol Deng. The Bulls small forward started the game off hot and sparked a blowout that allowed the league's playing-time leader to play less than 38 minutes for only the second time in the past nine games. He scored 12 of his game-high 22 points in the first quarter, and Chicago ran away with this one a few minutes later.
X factor: Nate Robinson. Chicago's bench got out to a big lead in the second quarter as the entire reserve unit played well. But the two-time dunk champ's 10 points in the period, not to mention his energy, are what instigated the Maverick burial, which seemed all but certain even before halftime.
That was ... lackluster: The Bulls really needed this win after a huge collapse to the Bucks on Monday, and it was nice to see Deng, Joakim Noah and Shawn Marion all play excellent basketball. But when Chicago and Dallas take the court with neither Derrick Rose nor Dirk Nowitzki in uniform, it really just feels like you're watching the cities' junior varsity squads face off.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Zach Randolph. Z-Bo made the most of his 31 minutes, notching 17 points (on 7-of-10 shooting), 13 rebounds and 6 assists, all without ever leaving the ground.
X factor: The Raptors went into Memphis on the second night of a back-to-back, having played in Houston on Tuesday night. It showed in the second half as the Grizzlies outscored Toronto 55-35 in the third and fourth quarters.
LVP: Jonas Valanciunas. Just a few days after holding his own against Tim Duncan, Valanciunas struggled against the Memphis bigs to the tune of 2 points and 2 rebounds in 28 minutes. He did have 3 blocked shots, though.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Kevin Durant did typical Kevin Durant things, scoring an efficient 37 points on just 22 shots. What else is there to say about the guy? He's unstoppable.
LVP: It's a toss-up between Jeremy Lin (6 points on 7 shots) and James Harden, but let's go with the man of the hour. Harden was horrendous from the tip, going scoreless in the first quarter and finishing with 17 points on a grotesque 3-for-16 shooting. Oklahoma City's pick-and-roll defense never let up, and neither Harden nor Houston's coaching staff were equipped with a suitable answer.
That was ... brilliant execution: The Thunder went into into the game with a plan to shut down Harden by trapping him on pick-and-rolls and overloading the strong side whenever he held the ball. To say they succeeded would hardly do justice to their effort. Scott Brooks clearly wanted to place the offensive burden elsewhere, and the result was a career-high 27 points from Patrick Patterson, and Omer Asik dribble-driving from the free throw line on more than one occasion (he finished with 17 points). Oklahoma City's defense was crisp, focused, and overwhelming on a night you know they really wanted it to be.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Not ridiculous to say it this time. Jerry Stackhouse was tied for the second-leading scorer with 17 points, in 22 minutes. He took only threes for the second straight game, making an incredible 5 of 6 from behind the arc. This brings his 3-point total to 9-for-11 in the past two games. The 38-year-old has been a scoring machine for Brooklyn.
X factor: Nets rebounding. For the first time all season, Brooklyn had three rebounders in double-digits (Brook Lopez with 10, Andray Blatche with 13 and Reggie Evans with 10). Blatche got extended minutes due to early foul trouble from Lopez and grabbed his first 10 boards before halftime. Lopez got his 10 at some point during the third quarter.
Defining moment: As the second quarter came to a close, Rajon Rondo shoved Kris Humphries into the stands after Humphries fouled Kevin Garnett on a post-jumper. The fight quickly escalated and resulted in ejections for Rondo, Humphries and Gerald Wallace, who already had a technical foul from earlier. Without their best player in Rondo, the Celtics never were able to recover in the second half. The nature of the fight -- and the fact that it did spill into the courtside seats -- will probably result in further punishment from the league for some players.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Josh Smith was all over the place with 17 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 blocks. He still took his share of bad shots but his defensive presence and rebounding was huge.
X factor: Ben Gordon showed again why he's so well regarded in the NBA. His 26 points with seven 3-point baskets off the bench was an impressive performance that nearly took the Bobcats to the win.
That was ... putrid: Both teams may have played hard but neither team played well. Hawks were able to win a game where they shot 40 percent mostly because the Bobcats shot an even worse 39 percent and gave up a pathetic 16 turnovers. This isn't what James Naismith had in mind.
3. Wednesday's Best
The Nets bench: What once looked to be a group unwelcome even in the land of Land of Misfit Toys stepped up again, this time torching the Celtics. Andray Blatche, Jerry Stackhouse, C.J. Watson and Reggie Evans would impress even McKayla Maroney. And John Hollinger, too.
4. Wednesday's Worst
The Phoenix Suns: With a chance to reach the .500 mark, the Suns instead lost by 40 points in Detroit. "It's embarrassing. No professional loses by 30 or 40," Phoenix's Jared Dudley said. "It's kind of how we lost. Let's be honest, Detroit is not a really good team. Their team has struggled, like us at times."
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"There was nothing that we did that you could say was even NCAA quality. There's not anything to say. It was an absolutely horrendous game, and we'll have to do much, much better."
-- Suns coach Alvin Gentry, after his team lost 117-77 to the Detroit Pistons.
8. Feels Like The First Time
9. Stat Check
Josh Smith had 17 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and five blocked shots, and Al Horford chipped in with 17 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and three blocks to lead the Hawks to a 94-91 win over the Bobcats on Wednesday night. Since the NBA began tracking blocked shots in 1973, only one other pair of teammates have each tallied at least 15 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and three blocks in the same game: the Suns' Charles Barkley and Danny Manning against the 76ers on January 27, 1995.
10. Dunk Of The Night
Pistons Pummel Suns
MVP: Rodney Stuckey gave the Pistons a big boost off the bench with 18 points, five rebounds and four assists despite attempting just eight field goals.
LVP (Least Valuable Player): Take your pick of the Suns' roster, but Michael Beasley's four turnovers and 1-for-6 shooting set the tone for Phoenix's worst performance of the season.
That was ... embarrassing: The Pistons destroyed the Suns with runs of 28-2, 19-4 and 15-5 in a game that was even after one quarter. The Suns stopped competing during the 26-point run with the game long decided.
Wizards Win First
MVP: J.J. Hickson was the surprise stud against the Wizards, filling up the stat sheet like Kevin Love. He finished the game with 15 points, 19 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block in 34 minutes.
Defining moment: With 58 seconds to play, and the score locked at 82, Emeka Okafor blocked J.J. Hickson below the rim. Okafor earned his first trip to the free throw line on the ensuing possession, and sank both shots (the last points scored in the game) to give his team a two-point lead in a tightly contested fourth quarter.
X factor: The Wiz came into the game attempting the third-most 3s per game (22.9), but were shooting just 29.8 percent from deep (27th in the NBA). But they kept it inside the arc on this night (5-for-12), which helped them notch their first win of the season -- finally.
Ginobili Sinks Magic From 3
MVP: Manu Ginobili finished with 20 points, five assists and four rebounds to lead the way for the Spurs. Ginobili's shot distribution resided strictly behind the 3-point line, as all six of his field goals were 3-pointers.
Defining moment: After trailing 14-10 midway through the first quarter, San Antonio finished the period on a 19-4 run. Ginobili was the catalyst, scoring 12 of the Spurs' 19 points. From there, San Antonio cruised to a double-digit victory.
That was ... expected: The Spurs entered the game as one of the hottest teams in the NBA. Facing off against an inferior opponent in the Magic, it's no surprise that San Antonio won handily and extended their winning streak to five.