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Foes may fear Thunder’s new X factor, ‘The Beard’

Harden needs to strengthen his game for Thunder to excel

Clark Matthews March 30th, 2011

There are many things the Oklahoma City Thunder know they can expect on a nightly basis. Whenever they lace up, Russell Westbrook will be unstoppable going to the basket. If Kevin Durant does not score at least 25 points, it is an anomaly.

Thabo Sefolosha will always frustrate the opposing team’s best perimeter scorer with his relentless defense, and Kendrick Perkins will do the same to a post player. Off the bench, Nick Collison is going to take a charge.

This routine has worked wonderfully for the team through 70 games of the regular season. Yet, with the Northwest Division title — along with the first-round home court playoff advantage that comes with it — all but locked up, it is now time for the team to start considering how they will work toward winning the NBA Championship.

All of those givens will be carefully game-planned against in a seven-game series. They will need something else to put them over the edge. That X factor could be the contributions of James Harden.

Often referred to as “The Beard” because of his Egyptian pharaoh-inspired face fur, Harden has not always been a consistent force. At times, the second-year player acts tentatively or defers too much to his more experienced teammates. At other times, he is absolutely unstoppable, much like he was during March 20’s Toronto game, when he singlehandedly wiped away a 10-point deficit over a three-minute period.

For the Thunder to challenge the formidable opponents awaiting them in the playoffs, OKC needs more of the latter. Recent performance suggests it might be possible.

Prior to the Feb. 24 trade deadline that shook up the team roster by transferring out two starters (Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic) for two defensive-minded centers, Harden was averaging 10.6 points per game on 42 percent shooting. Since that point, he has averaged 17.2 points on 49 percent shooting. Some of his statistical improvement can be explained by receiving more playing time after the trade. However, when smoothed out using per-minute averages, he is still scoring at a much higher clip than he was with the former team makeup.

Beyond the improved numbers, it is clear that Harden has been a different player over the past month. He looks more confident on the floor, he is not passing up open shots, and he has truly embraced his new role as the bench scorer. This has been necessary since OKC gave up their third-best offensive player (Green) to get the defensive presence it craved for years (Perkins).

The question will be whether Harden can maintain this momentum into the postseason. Last season, he wilted in the playoff series against the Lakers, where he played scared and his shooting percentages dipped dramatically. Was that simply rookie jitters that can be cured by newfound confidence, or an indication of Harden wilting under pressure?

Hopefully, it is the former, because the Thunder’s postseason success will rely heavily on “The Beard” leading the way.

Matthews is an editor of local news and entertainment blog

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