By Ryan Costello
People in the real world are afraid of losing their wealth, scared of injury, petrified of losing face.
Make no mistake; the blood and sweat shed within the confines of an NBA arena are not the same as what’s sacrificed by laborer on the streets just outside. Giants playing a child’s game for a king’s ransom are not subject to most of the woes of the everyman.
The hardwood is neither the grand arena nor the bustling factory.
But there are nonetheless things to fear on the court. The pain is real. The pressure real. And when it comes down to it, in its own way, basketball can be pretty darn scary. Just ask J.J. Hickson, who caught himself on the business end of one of the more frighteningly athletic youngsters in the game: second-year Thunder guard James Harden.
Best known for his thick, bristly beard, Harden has begun to give generous returns on the investment made by the Thunder when they selected the Arizona State product third overall in the 2009 NBA draft. In 12 of Oklahoma City’s 14 December tilts, Harden has scored at least 11 points. After a difficult opening month, Harden is averaging 14.1 points per game in December, his highest of any month in his young career. He’s bested his 45% shooting clip this month only once, and the only Thunder player to hit more threes this season than Harden is one Kevin Durant.
Head coach Scott Brooks and company have noticed, and in return have been feeding the hungry Harden with a steady increase in minutes.
“James has been good. He struggled in the first month, it’s well documented, but in December he’s playing the way we need him to play,” Brooks said. “He comes in and gives us some aggressiveness and focus to the floor.”
In a Christmas matchup against their Northeast rivals from Denver on Saturday night, the Thunder was facing an eight-point deficit in the second quarter after stumbling out of the gates, and was seemingly treading water. The Nuggets were scoring at will and allowing very little at the hands of a stagnant Thunder offense.
The beard-wielding lefty had already assumed the role as the second unit’s scoring punch, and went to work again against the Nuggets with 10:30 left in the opening half. Harden knifed through the Denver defense for a quick layup. He followed that with an assist, five free throws, another layup, a three-pointer and a jump shot: 14 points in a hair more than two-and-a-half minutes.
All told, Harden finished with 21 points, and the Thunder finished with a 114-106 victory at the Oklahoma City Arena.
Harden isn’t the only Oklahoma City player fans have seen score in bunches. Similar performances put on by Durant earned in-unison affection by Thunder faithful before free throws during his breakout last season. M-V-P chants reigned down from ‘Loud City’ as the soon-to-be scoring champ would set up with his signature charity-stripe wiggle.
Fans made their own tribute to Harden while he was at the stripe Saturday night. It wasn’t the name of an award; six-man of the year is not the easiest phrase to cheer.
Rather, cheers for Harden voiced an idea.
“Fear the Beard!” shouted one fan. And another. And another.
“It definitely feels great,” Harden said of the pseudo chant. “It started last year, and the carryover feels great.”
The one question speculative pundits have about Harden is whether hit recent success has warranted a spot in the Thunder’s starting lineup. Brooks has said in the past that Starting guard Thabo Sefolosha’s defense is irreplaceable in Oklahoma City’s forward line, and that Harden’s own prowess against opposing offenses had a long way to go before it would merit a starting spot.
More recently, however, Brooks has been as complementary of Harden’s defense as his offense.
“We just continue to force him and challenge him to be a better defender every night, and he’s stepping up. He’s a two-way player right now,” Brooks said.
The good news is that Brooks’ love of the nine-man rotation has made it possible for Harden to play near starter minutes despite watching the tip from the pine. His 27.1 minutes per game during his December romp is fifth on the team, more than starting center Nenad Krstic’s 20 and just behind the pace of Sefolosha’s 30.9.
Blending the line between starter and reserve gives Brooks the flexibility to play matchups, a unique and necessary tool in navigating the treacherous waters of the NBA’s versatile Western Conference.