OKLAHOMA CITY -- The game was already effectively over as the Oklahoma City Thunder led the Houston Rockets by eight with 25 seconds left. James Harden was still trying to get the Rockets another bucket, but Kevin Durant was determined to not let him have it.
The two squared off as Harden danced with the ball, trying to shake Durant off just enough to uncork his patented stepback. Durant pushed up, not letting Harden have a sliver of airspace. The sequence went on, and on, with Harden working to get free and Durant not letting him. Eventually, Harden got just enough room to let one go over Durant's go-go-gadget arms, but it clanged off the iron and the Thunder collected the rebound as Durant unleashed a roar.
"Nobody can guard James Harden one-on-one," Durant said, taking the modest approach. "You get a lot of help, you just play as hard as you can and try to force him into tough shots. That's all you can do. That's all I did tonight."
Durant's celebration wasn't just because the Thunder still take great satisfaction in beating Harden's Rockets on Friday, 116-108. It was also because in recent weeks, their defensive character has been challenged, with cracks in the armor possibly revealed. Their inconsistencies had graduated from "something that needs improving" to "possible problem": the Brooklyn Nets scored 116, the New York Knicks totaled 122 and the Minnesota Timberwolves scored 123 on them in the past week.
But against Houston, the Thunder limited the Rockets to 37.9 percent from the floor and 9-of-39 from 3. A combination of Dion Waiters and Durant did an admirable job on Harden (33 points on 9-of-22 shooting, 15-of-17 free throws), at least forcing him to take, and make, difficult shots. It was their most complete performance in a while, and a reaffirmation that they have it in them.
"I thought as the game wore on, our defense got better and better and more consistent," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "Overall, I thought it was a good win for us coming off those four games on the road where we talked about trying to get better defensively."
It wouldn't be Thunder-Rockets without some tension, and there was plenty of it. It started literally from tip-off, with Patrick Beverley and Russell Westbrook rekindling their friendship; Beverley picked Westbrook up fullcourt on the Thunder's first possession. Beverley fouled Westbrook as the two spilled to the floor. Westbrook popped up and shot a wry smile at Houston's bench.
Dwight Howard and Kyle Singler tangled in the second quarter -- Howard grabbed Singler around the head. Howard was hit with a technical foul, and then was handed a second and an ejection in the third quarter for arguing a non-call.
Standard stuff between these two teams, though. There's plenty of history between them, and even if it gets downplayed before each matchup, it still exists whether they say so or not. Beverley ran into Westbrook's knee three years ago. The Harden trade happened three-and-a-half seasons ago. Harden has spent a longer amount of time in a Rockets uniform than he did in a Thunder one. He has played 61 games more for Houston than he did in Oklahoma City.
The trade will never go away, though. It lingers over everything the Thunder do, whether directly or indirectly. Every critique, every criticism, seems to be rooted in that move. An a-to-b line gets drawn: a) the Thunder traded Harden; b) the Thunder haven't won a championship.
Since dealing Harden, however, the Thunder still have the fourth-best record in the league, not to mention three playoff series wins. In games Westbrook, Durant and Serge Ibaka played in, though? They have the best record in the league since the trade. Better than the San Antonio Spurs. Better than the Golden State Warriors. The Thunder haven't lost a playoff series with those three healthy in every game since the 2012 Finals against the Miami Heat (in which, of course, Harden participated).
The Thunder have moved on. But the trade lives on, mostly because in hindsight, the Thunder ended up not getting anywhere near the return they should have for an MVP-caliber player. It has always been about one big what-if, with unknowable assumptions taking precedence over what has happened. The Thunder have continued being very good without Harden -- as long as No. 35 and No. 0 remain in OKC.
On Friday, as Harden tried to carry the Rockets alone, Durant poured in 33, plus 12 rebounds, while Westbrook notched his sixth triple-double of the season (26 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists). An indirect offshoot of the trade, Enes Kanter, added 22 points and 10 rebounds in 26 minutes, taking advantage of Howard's ejection by scoring 20 after halftime. Waiters, starting at shooting guard, added 16 on 6-of-9 shooting. It hasn't always consistently worked, but part of the Thunder front office's plan has been to create a deeper team around Westbrook and Durant in place of what would've been a three-headed monster. On Friday, at least, it was on display.
The Thunder have never seemed to recover from the move, and until they raise a banner, that will endure. Fair or not, that's the deal they made. They got the better of Harden on Friday, and like Durant's moment of jubilation showed, it still means something that they bested The Beard.