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April 21, 2013

Thunder: No fear minus the beard

OKLAHOMA CITY  — When the Oklahoma City Thunder decided it was time to part ways with James Harden and trade him away to Houston near the end of training camp, coach Scott Brooks wanted his team to move on as quickly as possible without being cold to a sensitive situation.

Having just lost in the NBA Finals a few months earlier, the Thunder were about to embark on a season with the highest of expectations when they couldn’t agree with Harden on terms to extend his contract past this season.

Nearly six months later, the question still remains: Can Oklahoma City somehow be better despite trading away one of the NBA’s budding superstars?

Harden blossomed in Houston, becoming an All-Star and the NBA’s fifth-leading scorer in his first opportunity to be a franchise’s featured player. He led the Rockets to the postseason for the first time in four years and, as fate would have it, they’ll face his former team in the opening round.

Game 1 is Sunday night in Oklahoma City.

So far, the Thunder  — who would have had to go well over the salary cap to get close to the maximum deal Harden got in Houston — have shown they could be better without him.

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Co. posted a higher winning percentage than in any of their three seasons with Harden and earned the top seed in the Western Conference for the first time since 1996 as the Seattle SuperSonics.

But all that will be forgotten if they flame out before the Finals.

“This league can set you up for a lot of excuses  — where you have an injury, where you have a trade, where you have a back-to-back, where you have four in five nights, where you’re playing against two good teams back to back,” Brooks said after a lengthy practice Friday.

“You don’t make excuses. You do your job and you have that no-excuse mentality, and I think that’s the reason why we’ve been able to push this team forward with Kevin and Russell being our leaders.”

Harden, who accepted a bench role in Oklahoma City and became the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, became a superstar in his own right while scoring 25.9 points per game this season for the Rockets. Only Carmelo Anthony, Durant, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James averaged more.

No one player has filled Harden’s void with the Thunder. Durant and Westbrook took on even more ball-handling and play-making responsibilities. Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka contributed the best statistical seasons of their careers. Kevin Martin, the primary player received by Oklahoma City in the Harden trade, took over the sixth-man role while producing about 3 less points and 21/2 fewer assists per game than Harden last season.

The deal also brought the Thunder two first-round draft picks and Jeremy Lamb, the No. 12 pick in last year’s draft who spent most of this season in the D-League, and some financial flexibility.

“Everybody’s gotten better, and experience helps,” Durant said. “Time helps that. Guys wanted to come back better. After losing in the finals, we all worked hard. ... Everybody got better. I think that’s why we’ve grown as a team.”

Harden has become the cornerstone for Houston’s franchise, which has used a flurry of moves to completely overhaul the roster around him. Jeremy Lin, who was at the center of the “Linsanity” craze in New York, will be making his playoff debut along with fellow starter Chandler Parsons and a few other Rockets.

“Guys have never been in this situation, they’ve never been in the playoffs,” Harden said. “(I’m) blessed and fortunate to have been there a few times and whatever advice I can give, I just let it out.”

As late as the final day of the regular season, the Rockets had a chance to get as high as the sixth seed in the West before ending up at No. 8.

The Thunder closed strong enough to pass San Antonio for the top seed, with the Spurs dealing with late-season injuries to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and ended up with 60 wins.

“We felt we moved on pretty quick, and it’s shown through what we’ve been able to accomplish this year with our record,” Brooks said. “We have a lot of high-character guys that I believed in when we made the trade. I knew that we were going to be still in a good position to continue to grow as a team and continue to be a very good basketball team.”

Just how good will be decided not on the impressive regular-season record but on how Oklahoma City fares from here on out.

It starts against the Rockets, who got their only win in three regular-season meetings when Harden scored 46 points in a 122-119 victory just after the All-Star break.

“Each year, we know what to expect in the first round,” Durant said. “We know how tough it is. ... Most people say a 1-8 seed is supposed to be easy, or a 2-7 seed. We’ve never had an easy series. Never. Last year was so tough against Dallas, it took all we had for us to beat those guys. This year, Houston, I think they’re playing better than an eighth seed and they play so well. So, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

“But we’re calm and we’re focused, and we know what we need to do.”

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