|The Beard returns to Oklahoma City. (Getty Images)|
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Scott Brooks isn't hiding it. He's not downplaying it. He's not coach-speaking about it.
Wednesday's game against the Rockets isn't just any other game. It means more.
"No, it's not just another game. I want to beat the Rockets," Brooks said. "They traded me in the second championship year. It took me five years to get over Rudy Tomjanovich. Now we're best buddies. But yeah, it's still personal."
Oh, well that's not really what I meant.
One month ago -- exactly -- James Harden was traded to the Rockets in a blockbuster deal that sent Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward to Houston in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and multiple picks.
|More on NBA|
|More NBA coverage|
And Wednesday night, Harden makes his return.
To use the word "shocking" doesn't quite do the deal justice. It was Bruce-Willis-is-actually-dead-in-The-Sixth-Sense surprising. It came after a season in which Harden won Sixth Man of the Year for the Thunder and after he was a major piece in leading them to within three wins of an NBA title.
But after the Thunder inked Serge Ibaka to a big extension, the attention turned to Harden. With a few days before the deadline of Harden becoming a restricted free agent, the line was drawn in the sand. The Thunder were offering big money, big enough to put them into the scary new luxury tax. But it wasn't enough. Harden wanted max dollars and OKC wasn't willing to go there. So Thunder general manager stuck to his principle and organizational core values: He traded Harden to try to maximize his return and maintain the Thunder's long-term vision.
Harden's return Wednesday to OKC isn't some LeBron-returns-to-Cleveland kind of thing. A little animosity did emerge because Harden's insistence to the media that he would take less money and "sacrifice" (his word, not mine) set fans up for disappointment when he very clearly wanted max money. Still, the general thought is Harden will be more cheered than booed when he's announced in front of the fans that so dearly loved him, and his beard, for three seasons.
“Obviously with James coming back, the fans are going to be excited to see him,” Brooks said. “But I really believe they're going to cheer him on early and cheer for us the rest of the game.”
Other than the fact he wants revenge on the Rockets for trading him, Brooks downplayed the game as just one of 82. But he's no fool. He knows it means a little more to the fans, and moreover, Harden.
“There's no question it's probably more emotional for the guy playing against his former team than a team playing against one player,” Brooks said. “Because we look at [Wednesday's] game as we have to beat the Rockets.”
Don't forget: The primary player Harden was traded for, Kevin Martin, is also facing off against his old team. He's been through this experience before when he returned to Sacramento after being dealt to Houston. He knows what's coming.
“He's going to be hit with a lot of emotions. Especially the closer it gets to tipoff,” Martin said. “But the fans love him here, he had success. So it should be a good welcoming for him.”
What about for him personally, playing against the Rockets?
“I had some great years down there. Not being in a Rockets uniform, it'll be a little emotional,” he said. “But it's part of the business and you wish them the best of luck and you go on with the game and try and win it.”
It was pretty well-documented how tight-knit the Thunder locker room was with Harden. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden all had tremendous chemistry on the floor, but off it they maintained a real, legitimate friendship. But there's a game to be played and when you step on the floor and the ball gets thrown up, if you're Westbrook, then you're either with him, or dead to him.
“It won't be nothing for me. Nothing happened to me. It's another night, man,” said Westbrook. “Like I said, those guys, James, Daequan, Cole, we're all still good friends. But we got to go in and take care of business.”
Asked how much he's talked to Harden this season, Westbrook said, "None really. Not much."
With the Thunder, Harden was a third option behind Westbrook and Durant, and while there were nights he had the green light to take over, it was nothing like the green light he has in Houston. He's The Star, The Man, The Alpha. It's his team and as he goes, so does it. It's what Harden wanted, but there's a curse that comes with that blessing. Don't perform and your team suffers. In OKC, a 2-for-10 game only meant that Westbrook or Durant needed to step up. In Houston, it means you lose.
That's the message the Thunder want to send to Harden on Wednesday night. Being with us is a whole lot better than being against us. It's one of 82, technically no more important than any other. But the Thunder have lost to Harden once already. They don't want that feeling again.