OKLAHOMA CITY Used to be, James Harden was cheered, not booed, even when he was bad.
And by now you know what happened Wednesday night in his return to Oklahoma City as a starter and star for the Houston Rockets.
Harden was real bad.
Used to be, he was the most-popular player in Thunder blue, thanks to a game with flair and a beard that that was so popular it developed its own 16,000-follower Twitter account. Seemed like coming off the bench for the Thunder only added to his popularity, his mystery and his fame. Good enough to make the Olympic team, star in commercials, all the while never playing in the shadows of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but playing alongside them, despite coming into the game, not starting them.
Man, those were the days.
Used to be, his team could survive and win when he had an off night, thanks to Durant andor Westbrook. On those off-nights, Harden could quietly slip out the back door, avoid those pesky questions and redeem himself the next time out in a new game and a different arena.
Not tonight, old friend.
This one's on you, and there's nowhere to hide, because this is exactly what you wanted.
The Thunder dominated, Harden struggled and missed shot after shot. These days, when Harden is off, the Rockets lose. It was 120-98 Wednesday at Chesapeake Arena, mostly because the Thunder team was better than Harden the individual.
"James had an off night," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "That's the bottom line. He missed some shots he would normally make. We didn't do anything special. He saw bodies, hands and a lot of activity. That's what we want our opponents to see."
Harden was cheered exactly once during the player introductions. He was then jeered after missed shots (often) and then the unspeakable happened he was booed after getting into some sort of altercation with Hasheem Thabeet, which led to a Thabeet technical and led to Harden becoming the villain.
"I've never been in that position here before," Harden said.
Harden's a star because Houston made him one and paid him accordingly to prove the point. But that doesn't mean it's official. His ascent started and was nurtured in Oklahoma City. His future? We'll see.
Harden was 3-for-16 from the field and wound up with 17 points, scoring nine of his points from the line, and instead of slipping into the Oklahoma City night, Harden had to answer for his off night.
"I just couldn't finish the ball," he said. "I had good looks."
Harden was back in Oklahoma City for the first time since being traded to Houston just days before the regular season started in a move that shook up both rosters, brought up hard feelings and also sent Kevin Martin to Oklahoma City.
There's no sense declaring the Thunder the winner on the trade. Not yet. Harden has been great in stretches, yet Martin has been more than just a complementary piece, taking over Harden's role off the bench. No winner Wednesday, but there's a feeling the Oklahoma City win did mean something a bit more than just a November W.'
Durant scored 37 points, even extending three fingers to the floor after a first-half 3-pointer, clearly mocking Harden's move he used to make after 3-pointers here in Oklahoma City. Martin scored 17 points on 6-of-14 shooting and while Westbrook wasn't great, going 6-of-15 for 14 points, the end result was a first-round win over their former teammate.
So Harden said he wasn't pressing or putting too much emphasis on the game, but that doesn't mean I have to believe him, especially after he said, "It felt good just to finally get this over with. Now I can continue on with the season." That doesn't sound like the words of someone who seemed keenly aware that his team relies on him.
Coming into the game, he was a 35-percent shooter in Houston's seven losses, but a 54-percent shooter in the Rockets' seven wins. That's the numbers of a guy who wants to be the center of attention, the center of the offense and at the top of the marquee.
"I sacrificed to make the Thunder better," Harden said before the game.
And Wednesday was a manifestation of his reward. Houston is 7-8 and a playoff longshot. Yes, he got his max contract, and yes, now he's the director of an offense that has no other options. Jeremy Lin was three-for-seven Wednesday and former Thunder guard Daequan Cook started and the Rockets have Patrick Patterson (27 points) playing the role of Kevin Durant. That's not a formula for offensive diversity. That's the formula for getting in line for a lottery pick.
But that's not Harden's worry. He wanted all this.
"James was pressing a little bit," said Rockets interim coach Kelvin Sampson, whose team flew in late to Oklahoma City after attending the funeral for coach Kevin McHale's daughter earlier Wednesday. "I'm not sure (Harden) would admit it, but I've watched him play every game. Tonight he was pressing a little bit."
Harden very well may become an All-Star. He's going to put up points and get his stats.
He just didn't on Wednesday against his former team.