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First Round Of Thunder vs. Harden Comes To Fitting End

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There wasn't much James Harden could do about it.

The fourth quarter of Game 6 was more of a crime scene than a basketball game. Kevin Durant, Kevin Martin and Derek Fisher rained in one shot after another as the Rockets' luck finally ran out. Houston's lights-out shooting came to a screeching halt as the Thunder exploded on a 21-7 run to start the quarter.

Harden buried a couple 3's along the way but it was hopeless. For the first time since Game 1, his teammates couldn't keep up. It was like we were back in Space Jam and Chandler Parsons, Francisco Garcia and Patrick Beverley were finally forced to give their talent back after playing out of their minds for much of the series.

It was as it had been for much of the season: James Harden against the world.

And as any one-on-five matchup goes, Harden failed.

5/3/2013 RELATED STORY: Game Over: Thunder Defuses Rockets

It was a predictable and fitting end for a guy who dug his own grave by not signing an extension with Oklahoma City back in October.

Harden turned down the four-year, $52 million extension the Thunder offered, forcing GM Sam Presti to make an extremely difficult decision. He elected to dump Harden for a solid package of assets, and shortly after, The Beard got a five-year, $80 million deal from the Rockets.

By turning OKC's extension down, Harden gave up his immediate shot at a championship. And unless Houston dramatically improves its roster, he will have given up a shot at ANY championship.

But for Harden, the positives outweighed the negatives. He wanted a max contract, he wanted to start and he wanted to finally be recognized for his talent.

He finished fourth in the NBA in points per game this season, something he never could have accomplished in Oklahoma City. He shot 17 field goals and 10 free throws per game this season; a dramatic increase from the 10 and six he shot as a sixth man.

5/4/2013 RELATED STORY: Pine And Dandy: Bench Proves Thunder Not Finished Yet

Sure, his efficiency dropped dramatically, but who cares, right? You don't start the All-Star game by shooting 49 percent from the floor and 39 percent from 3 (2011-2012 numbers) as a bench player. You get there by dumping buckets and increasing your scoring average by nearly nine points per game.

When the trade occurred, many national media members and fans called the Thunder cheap, stupid and uncommitted, dismissing its chances of contending without its ferocious sixth man. Some even said the move handed the Western Conference to the Lakers (seriously, the Lakers).

But as Harden poured in the points, the Thunder went about its business.

Durant and Westbrook had All-Pro caliber seasons and Serge Ibaka continued to progress. Martin finished in the league's top 10 in 3-point percentage while Reggie Jackson emerged as a legitimate scoring threat off the bench.

The team accused of going cheap and not sacrificing to win silenced everyone by winning 60 games and seizing the No. 1 seed – two OKC-era firsts.

For many Thunder fans, it took a long time for the whole thing to feel real. For some it still doesn't. But Harden made his decision and now he's gone forever; and until he or the Thunder finally wins a championship, the race to beat the other will exist.

If OKC wins that race, it's "here's what you left behind, James."

But if Harden wins that race, it's "I don't need Durant or Westbrook to win," and it hurts the Thunder franchise immeasurably. Make no mistake, this rivalry is far from over – it's just getting started.

In other words, Game 6 wasn't the end of this story; it was simply the end of this chapter.

The Rockets have said they plan on being active in free agency this summer, so this time next year it might be a whole new team. The next chapter could see Dwight Howard, Josh Smith or Andrew Bynum join forces with The Beard, or perhaps Houston strikes out and looks the same as it did this season.

Either way, the banged-up Thunder has overcome its talented castaway and is moving on to face Memphis.

It's time to put the Harden story to bed, just as the Thunder put his team to bed.

So rockabye, sweet baby James. The Thunder will still be here when you wake up.

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