Thunder begin post-James Harden era
by Adi Joseph, USA TODAY Sports
James Harden killed the San Antonio Spurs last season. The NBA’s sixth man of the year was relentless as the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Spurs in the Western Conference finals. Harden averaged 18.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists a game during the six-game series.
Harden is a Houston Rocket now. He is a starter now. He is posting crazy 37-point, 12-assist games now. And the Thunder start their season tonight without him. They start it against the Spurs.
TNT’s doubleheader became a single showcase when the Brooklyn Nets-New York Knicks season opener was postponed. But the network’s 9:30 p.m. ET showing of Thunder vs. Spurs should provide enough entertainment.
But Harden won’t be part of it.
The Thunder and Spurs featured almost identical rosters to those from the Western Conference finals until Harden was traded to the Rockets last week. Here are three ways that trade could impact tonight’s game:
Russell Westbrook must maintain control. The Thunder point guard had his worst postseason series against the Spurs. He shot 37.8% from the field, including miserable performances in Games 3 and 4, two Thunder wins. Harden ran the offense often, and Westbrook was outshined by Spurs point guard Tony Parker. Westbrook has no safety net. He’ll have to play more efficiently.
Kevin Martin must assert himself quickly. The shooting guard will replace Harden as Thunder sixth man. He’s a natural scorer who lacks Harden’s deep bag of tricks. But Martin cuts off screens well, has great range and draws more fouls than a typical shooter. The Thunder will find a role for a player this skilled.
Manu Ginobili must return with a vengeance. The Spurs shooting guard had an up-and-down West finals, posting 34 points, seven assists and six rebounds in Game 5 but eight points and four turnovers in Game 3. Harden was a tough matchup for Ginobili, as they share skill sets and Harden is bigger and stronger. But Ginobili sat out the Spurs’ opener to rest his back, and he should be fresh for his first game of the season.