To exorcise playoff demons, James Harden should one-up ex-teammate Kevin Durant

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HOUSTON — Whereas within the Phoenix space for the 2009 NBA All-Star Weekend, Kevin Durant took a 15-minute journey to Tempe, Ariz., to observe Arizona State’s much-hyped sophomore guard, James Harden.

Durant — then the 20-year-old face of the Oklahoma Metropolis Thunder — sat courtside as Harden led the No. 18 Solar Devils to a 74-67 win over No. 11 UCLA. In Harden, Durant noticed a pick-and-roll maestro whose court docket imaginative and prescient and basketball IQ belied his youth.

“I simply bear in mind considering, ‘That is somebody who may actually assist me get higher,’” Durant advised The Chronicle final 12 months.

A decade faraway from that recreation, Durant and Harden credit score one another with serving to them turn out to be NBA MVPs. Of their three seasons collectively on the Thunder (2009-12), the 2 college-age phenoms sparred in an previous curler rink the workforce transformed right into a follow facility, typically buying and selling jumpers late into the night time. Now Western Convention rivals, Durant makes use of Harden’s emergence as an all-league mainstay as motivation.


When Durant drains a fade-away 3-pointer over Harden or propels the Warriors to victory over Harden’s Rockets, he has bragging rights over his longtime pal. This one-on-one duel has been an intriguing subplot in Golden State’s second-round collection towards Houston. A 12 months after falling to Durant and the Warriors in Sport 7 of the West finals, Harden is doing all he can to present his workforce a shot at redemption.

His eyes nonetheless tinged with blood from getting hit within the face by Draymond Inexperienced 4 days earlier, Harden saved the Rockets from a crippling 3-Zero collection deficit Saturday, drilling a step-back 3-pointer and a floater within the ultimate minute of additional time to carry Houston to a 126-121 win in Sport 3. After watching Harden overcome a 5-for-13 dud from past the arc to attain 41 factors, Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni mentioned, “That’s James. That’s what he does.”

Harden’s clutch taking pictures overshadowed yet one more masterful efficiency from Durant, who scored 34 of his game-high 46 within the second half to assist pressure additional time on an evening Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson shot a mixed 13-for-39 from the sector (4-for-15 from 3-point vary).

Since Durant publicly declared after trying simply eight pictures in Sport 2 of the primary spherical, “I’m Kevin Durant. You realize who I’m,” he has averaged 39.Four factors on 51.1 % taking pictures. Sometimes content material to guide by instance, Durant has turn out to be extra vocal in latest days, barking out reads on protection and reminding teammates to maneuver on from unhealthy performs.


Even Durant’s protection, not thought of considered one of his strengths, has been key in these playoffs. With 11 steals and 10 blocks, he has thrived stepping into passing lanes and contesting pictures on the rim.

Harden isn’t shocked. Throughout his three years with Durant in Oklahoma Metropolis, he noticed the diligence behind Durant’s greatness. Usually occasions, Harden arrived on the follow facility at 10 or 11 p.m., solely to seek out Durant hoisting pictures in silence.

“Everyone knows how gifted he’s and the way proficient he’s, however he works his butt off,” Harden mentioned. “After I got here within the league, simply watching him hit his stride, he stayed within the gymnasium. He lived within the gymnasium. That’s one thing I can all the time take away from that. That’s one thing I’ve tried to do additionally.”

When advised Friday that Harden emulates his work ethic, Durant mentioned, “You recognize all of the love that your friends present you, particularly guys that got here up with you, was grinding since children, mainly. Understanding James since we had been younger, we had been within the gymnasium collectively. … Hopefully, he pulled a pair issues from me, however I most likely pulled far more issues from him than he obtained from me.”

In October 2012, 4 months after the Thunder misplaced to LeBron James’ Warmth in 5 video games, Harden — then the reigning Sixth Man of the 12 months — was traded with three different gamers to Houston for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round choose. Harden’s contract-extension negotiations with Oklahoma Metropolis had stalled, and lots of believed that he wished the prospect to guide a franchise.

However whilst he charted a course for NBA stardom the previous seven years, Harden constructed a status for postseason failure.

His 10-point, six-turnover meltdown within the Rockets’ 39-point loss to San Antonio in Sport 6 of the 2017 West semifinals stays a black mark on his resume. Whereas Durant pumped in an environment friendly 34 factors to energy the Warriors to victory in Sport 7 of the 2018 West finals, Harden dedicated 5 turnovers and missed 11 of his 13 3-point tries.

In Video games 1 and a couple of of this collection, Harden was removed from dominant, receiving extra consideration for his complaints concerning the officiating than his play. Though he hit two huge pictures in additional time to seal the Warriors’ destiny Saturday, Harden additionally missed 18 makes an attempt and posted a plus-minus of minus-Four in 45 minutes.

“I don’t even assume he performed nice in Harden world,” D’Antoni mentioned. “He may even go as much as one other degree.”

Connor Letourneau is a San Francisco Chronicle workers author. E mail: cletourneau@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @Con_Chron



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