<
>

Will James Harden struggle against the Thunder again?

HOUSTON -- For all of James Harden’s brilliance that's led to his MVP candidacy, there’s this: He struggles against his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Houston Rockets point guard will face the Thunder for the final time in the regular season on Sunday afternoon at the Toyota Center.

Harden has an offensive rating of just 94 against the Thunder, the lowest against any team he’s played against this season. He’s shooting just 29 percent from the field and 21.7 percent from 3-point range. The cause for the shooting woes begins and starts with Thunder small forward Andre Roberson.

“Pretty good defender, long arms, he does a really good job of using his length,” Harden said of the 6-foot-7 Roberson, who was measured with a 6-11 wingspan at the NBA draft combine in 2013. “You got guys like Steven Adams behind him that helps him a lot as well.”

Harden doesn’t change his game when Roberson faces him. He will continue to be aggressive with drives and step-back jumpers. He will also utilize his strength as a distributor, evident by his 12.3 assists per game in three games against the Thunder this season. But Oklahoma City doesn’t make it easy on him. In the three games, the Thunder contested 41 of his 55 shot attempts, to which Harden has converted 13 baskets. When it comes to 3-pointers, Harden has made just 5 of 23 attempts, 14 contested.

The Rockets dismiss the notion the Thunder have forced Harden into more of a passer than a scorer. He’s still taken 55 shots, more than any player on the team. Yet Roberson and his friends are waiting for him on the offensive end.

This puts pressure on the Rockets’ other shooters to make plays when Harden is off. Eric Gordon is second on the team in scoring against the Thunder, averaging 17.3 points, with Ryan Anderson and Nene behind him at 13.3 points. Anderson will miss Sunday’s game with a sprained right ankle, so coach Mike D’Antoni could insert Gordon into the lineup or second-year forward Sam Dekker, who is averaging 8.7 points in those three games against the Thunder, in 50 total minutes.

“When you see how our team is made up, we have a lot of spot shooters, with me Eric and Lou [Williams],” guard Patrick Beverley said. “Ryan, Trevor [Ariza], all those guys are spot shooters; that’s our team. We understand James is going to have the ball in his hands a lot. When he kicks it out, we have to be ready to make open shots. We’re the third-best team in the NBA, so I guess we’ve been doing it at a high rate this year.”

The Rockets have been outstanding this season and you don’t reach this level with luck. Harden has a great claim to the MVP award. This stat alone says it all: Harden is on pace to become the second player in league history to average at least 28 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds in a season. Oscar Robertson is the only other player to achieve this, and he did it four times during his Hall of Fame career.

Somehow against the Thunder, these numbers don’t mean as much. And these two teams could meet in the opening round of the postseason.

If that’s the case, Roberson will be awaiting Harden, along with some friends of his.

“He’s a good defender,” D’Antoni said. “But I don’t think he makes James do anything [different]. James will be ready to do his thing, no change. He will figure it out, he always has and always will. I expect him to continue to do what he is doing.”