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SPORTS: Oklahoma City Thunder

Harden's Return To OKC Will Stir Emotions At The Peake

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OKLAHOMA CITY -

One month ago today shock waves were sent throughout Thunder nation.

On Oct. 27, the Oklahoma City front office shook up this city and the rest of the NBA when Sam Presti confirmed that the organization had shipped fan-favorite James Harden to the Houston Rockets.

For some Thunder fans, the wounds haven't even healed yet.

But on Wednesday, ‘The Beard' will take the floor in Chesapeake Energy Arena for the first time in red and white against his old running mates.

Even though Kevin Martin has slid relatively effortlessly into Harden's vacated role as the leader of the second unit and the team's No. 3 offensive option, there is a void that still exists.

Harden meant a lot to this team and this fanbase. There has been a noticeable drop off in energy in The Peake this season, almost like a hangover from the trade heard ‘round the world.

It would be hard to find a late November matchup in this league that will generate as much buzz as the Rockets' lone visit to OKC this season will on Wednesday.

In an effective effort to relieve some of the tension, Thunder coach Scott Brooks made light of the situation after Tuesday's practice.

"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."

Brooks is always mild mannered and that alone should do a good job of settling the Thunder against Harden.

Harden poured salt in the wound with back-to-back explosions in his first two games with the Rockets, scoring 37 and 45 points, respectively. After that, a ridiculous overreaction by the national media had pinned OKC as a pariah and a team with its innocence lost, choosing money over its fan base and young core.

They were refusing to acknowledge the obvious: it wasn't the Thunder that chose to lose Harden. Nobody wanted James in Thunder blue more than Presti and the organization that rolled the dice in the draft on a now max-contract worthy player.

Since then his averages have come back down to earth, as has his team. With a Tuesday night win over the Raptors, Houston is back to .500 at 7-7 and, if the season were to end tomorrow, the Rockets would be out of the playoffs.

And if the season ended tomorrow, OKC would be the No. 2-seed for the second straight year.

Harden is fifth in the NBA in scoring at 25.2 points per game, but the talent surrounding him doesn't measure up to what he had in OKC.

Both teams have their place in the pecking order but tomorrow will still be emotional for the Thunder players and Harden. Not to mention Martin, who will be facing his old team.

"When you trade somebody you've been with, there's obviously emotions," Brooks said. "Guys are going to be missed. You get close to the players you coach. If you don't have those emotions, you're probably in the wrong business."

While emotions will likely run deep and there is no telling how Harden will be received by a fanbase that once donned fake beards in mass, once the ball is tipped it should be business as usual for the Thunder.

These teams are on different playing fields. Oklahoma City is measured by whether or not it can return to the NBA Finals, the Rockets will be deemed a success if they even make a postseason appearance.

Oklahoma City is still a power in the post-Harden era, as evidenced by a 45-point thrashing of the Bobcats on Monday, even if it doesn't feel quite the same.

Wednesday will just be another step in the healing process. Well, so long as Oklahoma City wins.

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