OKLAHOMA CITY—Kevin Durant matched his season high with 37 points, and Oklahoma City beat the Houston Rockets 120-98 on Wednesday night in James Harden’s first game back in Chesapeake Energy Arena since being traded by the Thunder before the season.
Harden scored 17 points, but was limited to 3-for-16 shooting. He had six shots blocked by the Thunder.
Patrick Patterson scored 27 points and Omer Asik had 17 points and 12 rebounds to lead the way for the Rockets, who began the day by attending the funeral of coach Kevin McHale’s daughter in Minnesota.
Harden missed his first nine shots, and by the time he made one, the Rockets were down by double digits in the second half. They never got closer than 10 after that.
Harden, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year as Oklahoma City made it to the finals last season, was unable to agree on a contract extension with the Thunder and was traded just before the season started.
He then agreed to a maximum contract worth $80 million with Houston.
Harden was at the center of a heated first-half incident that got Thunder backup center Hasheem Thabeet temporarily ejected. Thabeet and Harden exchanged words after Thabeet blocked two consecutive shots by Harden. Thabeet then bumped into referee Marc Davis and pushed him away, resulting in an ejection. But Davis went to instant replay and downgraded the punishment to a single technical foul.
Fans gave Thabeet a standing ovation when he returned to the court, and booed lustily as Harden made his free throw. It was Harden’s first point of the game and one of only two in the first half. Harden missed all eight of his shots from the field as Houston fell behind 57-45.
Harden’s return was only part of an emotion-filled day for the Rockets.
After blowing out Toronto on Tuesday night, the Rockets flew to Minnesota and arrived at the team hotel between 1:30 and 2 a.m. They were back up by 8 for a team brunch and a scouting report in suits and ties before they went to the funeral.
Acting coach Kelvin Sampson said McHale and his wife, Lynn, were arranging candles near some photos of Sasha and didn’t immediately see the team walk in.
"We didn’t know what to do or say, so we just waited for them to get finished, then they turn around and at the same time they looked at us," Sampson said. "Really, really, really emotional."
McHale hugged everyone in Houston’s traveling party and shared a few words with each person. He took a leave of absence from the team on Nov. 10. Sasha died Saturday at age 23 of complications from lupus.
"Just to see our faces, I think, kind of gave him some kind of joy. Just to show him that we were there, our whole entire organization was there just to support him," Harden said. "No matter if it was for 5 minutes or 30 minutes, he just wanted to see our faces. I’m glad we got that opportunity to go out there and share that moment with him."
The team then flew to Oklahoma City, arriving at the arena less than 5 hours before game time. Sampson said about half of his players were in the locker room with towels over their heads, trying to squeeze in a nap during the afternoon.
He wasn’t sure whether to expect them to play "lights out" or play tired.
"I think our guys understand that there’s something far more powerful and more important that happened today than their routine, and that was supporting a coach that lost a daughter," Sampson said.
Daequan Cook, also involved in the Harden trade, scored 18 points while starting in place of injured Rockets forward Chandler Parsons (shoulder).
Serge Ibaka scored 23 points and blocked six shots. Kevin Martin, the centerpiece of the trade from Oklahoma City’s standpoint, had 17 points.
The Thunder flashed a welcome back message to Harden, Cook and Cole Aldrich—the three players involved in the trade—on the overhead scoreboard with about 11 minutes left in pregame warm-ups’. Harden got a warm ovation when his name was announced with the starting lineups.
Harden and Cook both greeted coach Scott Brooks and others on the Thunder bench just before tipoff, but then started slowly. Harden missed his first four shots—getting a jumper swatted from behind and out of bounds by Westbrook, and a fast-break layup blocked as Ibaka followed him to the basket—and committed two early turnovers. Cook also missed his first three shots, but then hit a jumper and a 3-pointer for a 19-14 Houston lead.
Oklahoma City surged back ahead with an 18-4 run, including the first nine points of the second quarter, to go up 36-25 before Thabeet and Harden had their run-in.
The lead grew to 49-33 after Harden’s foul allowed Durant to convert a four-point play. By that point, Oklahoma City had scored 15 points off of 10 Houston turnovers. The Rockets were without a point in that category.
Notes: Sampson formerly coached at Oklahoma for 12 seasons. "The circumstances that I took over this position with, I just don’t feel comfortable talking about me. I talk to Kevin every day. I talked to him the day his daughter died. I’m really, really close to Kevin and I’m holding the fort down until he comes back." ... Parsons hurt his right shoulder late in Houston’s win against Toronto on Tuesday night. "I don’t think it’s a joint. I think it’s more soft tissue, but he can’t get his elbow past 45 degrees," Sampson said.