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Thunder press forward without James Harden

By Royce Young | NBA writer

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- There was a little different look and feel to the Thunder locker room Tuesday night before they took on the Sacramento Kings. There was Kevin Durant sitting in front of his locker, headphones on watching film of Oklahoma City's last game against the Kings. There was Russell Westbrook, arms inside his shirt sitting and joking loudly with Serge Ibaka.

But in between them was a closed locker and an empty chair. A chair normally occupied by a superhuman beard. James Harden wasn't in the locker room, much less the building.

Two days removed from taking a brutal elbow from Metta World Peace that resulted in a concussion for Harden and a seven-game suspension for World Peace, Harden wasn't even with the team, instead taking this game in away from the arena.

The Thunder have played without Harden before this season as the likely Sixth Man of the Year has missed a couple games, but there was certainly an eerie feel to his absence this time. As the four-minute mark of the first quarter rolled around, typically a time reserved for a standing ovation for the Thunder's sixth starter as Harden entered the game. It's something of a Thunder tradition, welcoming Harden to the floor. He's not a starter, but he always gets a starter's ovation. Instead, Derek Fisher found his way to the score table and entered to a light smattering of applause. There was just something missing.

Harden's absence was the theme of the night and hovered over the game from the pregame availability to the postgame comments. As Thunder coach Scott Brooks and Thunder players were questioned about the elbow from World Peace prior to the game, the league hadn't yet come down with punishment for the elbow. Center Kendrick Perkins, who initially gave World Peace the benefit of the doubt after the game Sunday, changed his tune.

"During the game, I didn't really get a chance to see the play until I got home," he said. "And it was just uncalled for. I don't really have any sympathy for a guy that does something like that. You could have really hurt James in a serious way. Any time you do an intentional blow like that, it's just uncalled for. So I am anxious to see what happens."

What happened was seven games, something that Kevin Durant said he was happy to now put behind the team.

"The league did it, you gotta live with it," he said. "We can move past it now. We're just worried about getting James back in the locker room."

Durant was asked pregame if he thought Harden would be back soon, maybe for OKC's game Wednesday against Denver or at least the opening of the playoffs this weekend. He seemed confident.

"Yeah I am," Durant said. "I saw him today and he looked good today. So we'll see."

But Durant isn't a doctor, much less Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, the man in charge of the league's concussion policy program. In order to return, Harden will have to clear a number of tests to satisfy Kutcher. Which leaves open the ugly possibility that World Peace could serve his seven games as Harden still sat on the bench, presumably in a Lakers-Thunder second round playoff series.

Brooks said he learned of the suspension at halftime of OKC's game Tuesday and most of the players were actually informed by the media asking them about it afterwards postgame in the locker room. All that were questioned about their reaction to the seven games chose to stay above the fold.

"That's a league issue," Brooks said after the game. "We're just focused on James comes back healthy and our team finishes out the season strong. The league, that's their issue and I don't really have much to say about it."

Pregame, Brooks was questioned repeatedly about the elbow, but swatted every inquiry away only talking about how it was an "unfortunate" play and that he hoped Harden would be healthy again soon. Which is obviously a greater concern for Oklahoma City than World Peace's suspension, because if the Thunder are to live up to their title aspirations, James Harden needs to be healthy and on the floor.

It didn't hurt the Thunder Tuesday not having Harden as the lowly Kings were in town playing OKC in a fairly meaningless game. Brooks chose to rest his starters the entire fourth quarter, letting his second and third unit close out the game. But it also might've represented a very real scenario of Brooks having to figure out how to replace his third best player and instant offense off the bench. Daequan Cook provided a nice spark against the Kings with 19 off the bench, but that's obviously not something Brooks can rely upon headed to the postseason.

Harden's value to the team is priceless. He steadies the team, provides an anchor between Westbrook and Durant allowing the Thunder offense to flow more naturally instead of grinding to a halt with the forced offensive tension between OKC's two top scorers. His absence Tuesday was absolutely felt, because the Thunder clearly aren't the same team without him. It may or may not be intentional, but the fact Harden's locker is in between Westbrook and Durant is fitting. And for OKC's sake, it better hope those doors are open and that scraggly beard is occupying his chair by the weekend.
 
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