By Michael Kinney
The Norman Transcript
OKLAHOMA CITY — It was supposed to be a homecoming for James Harden. After being traded to Houston right before the season started, he made his first appearance back in Oklahoma City on Wednesday.
Kevin Durant spoiled the party. With another all-around strong game of 37 points, seven rebounds and four assists, he led the Thunder to a 120-98 victory at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Durant said he couldn’t sleep the night before because he was so excited about the matchup and was inspired by his former teammates being in town.
“We wanted this win bad for all those days in practice that (Harden), Daequan (Cook) and Eric Maynor beat the first group,” Durant said. “It was crazy seeing Harden before the game, and seeing him in a different uniform was a little different. We moved past it, though.”
Patrick Patterson paced the Rockets with 27 points. Harden entered the night as the fifth-leading scorer in the league at 25 points a game. He was held to 17 points on three-for-16 shooting.
“I think he had to experience this,” said interim Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, who was also making a return to Oklahoma. “Sometimes you just have to go through the moment. The next time he comes here, it won’t be his first time back. He won’t have gone through what he’s gone through. It’s almost a little bit unfair what he’s gone through.”
With his team having played two games and having traveled more than 2,000 miles for the funeral of coach Kevin McHale’s daughter, making three stops in three cities in a 27-hour span, Sampson understood why his team fell flat late.
Oklahoma City (12-5) took a 12-point lead into the fourth quarter. The Rockets (7-8) needed to make a serious push if they were going to get back into the game.
Knowing this, the Thunder picked up its defense and forced Houston into several turnovers and bad shots.
Houston had no answer for Durant, who scored 11 in the period. The gap soon ballooned to 102-84.
“Coach was telling me to be aggressive,” Durant said. “At the start of the fourth, he wanted me to go in and push over the top a little bit. I took that as a message to be aggressive, try to get the ball and try to score and make the defense play me.”
While most of the buzz surrounding the game centered on Harden’s return, the Thunder’s Kevin Martin also was playing his former team. The former Rocket came off the bench and scored 17 points. Russell Westbrook had a quiet 13 points, nine assists and three steals. Serge Ibaka added 23 points.
Cook started his first game of the year and posted 18 points.
The game was close at the start, but it took on a different tone after Harden and the Thunder’s Hasheem Thabeet exchanged trash talk and shoves midway through the second quarter. Thabeet was removed from the game, but after watching the replay, the officials rescinded the ejection.
“That was unique,” Brooks said. “He came back, our crowd went nuts. It was like Willis Reed. I’m joking.”
From that point on, the flow turned decidedly in Oklahoma City’s favor, and the Thunder built a 57-45 halftime lead.
Despite shooting poorly from the floor, Harden said he wasn’t nervous or trying to force his game. It was just one of those nights when nothing would fall.
“It felt good to be competing against those guys and finally get it over with,” Harden said. “Now I can continue on with the season. A lot of things have happened in these past 24 hours. It’s just another game. We have 70 more. Now we have a day off tomorrow to rest, relax our bodies and get ready for Utah.”
Michael KinneyFollow me @email@example.com
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