James Harden keeps growing his game

HOUSTON -- The thing to remember about the Oklahoma City Thunder trading James Harden is that the Thunder didn't trade this James Harden.

They didn’t have such a prolific scorer, they didn’t enjoy such an effective passer. They had a player who would be a perennial sixth man of the year candidate, not a guy drawing truly legit "M-V-P" chants during his numerous trips to the free throw line. They had a cult hero, not a star.

Most of all, they didn't have a player who is 0-2 in playoff series as an above-the-title star. Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale traces Harden's improvement in every other area to that one pertinent stat. McHale told ESPN Radio's Kevin Calabro and Jon Barry before the game that he tried to tell Harden how empty the accolades would feel if no playoff success came with it, and now that Harden has experienced that himself, he's even more dedicated to the things that matter for winning teams.

"I just think he's making more of the simple plays," McHale said after Houston's 112-101 victory over the Thunder on Thursday night.

Harden can still make complicated shots -- contested 3s, even a 3-point shot over Kevin Durant that banked in as Harden fell into the courtside seats -- but it's his willingness to quickly pass to the open man when the double-team arrives, or his penetration followed by a pass to an open 3-point shooter (McHale likes those the best) that have Harden on a higher plane these days.

Here's a rather arcane stat that speaks to McHale's point: Harden is 10th in the NBA in points created per assist, an NBA.com/stats number that accounts for passes that lead to a 3-pointer as well. He's the only shooting guard in the top 18 in that category (LeBron James is the only other non-point guard in the group).

That's the crux of what Durant implied when he said of Harden: "He's a point guard over there. He initiates everything. He's playing well."

Both Durant and McHale talked about how much Harden has the ball in his hands, yet Harden doesn't rank among the NBA's top 20 in number of touches or time of possession (also via NBA.com/stats).

Maybe this observation from Durant was more explanatory: "He's playing with a lot of swagger."

Harden has also scored the most points on drives to the basket, and he's in a familiar position with the most made free throws in the league. It all adds up to an NBA-best 26.9 points per game.

But leading the team in scoring doesn't always correlate with championships or even make convincing arguments for MVP. The older heads in the Rockets organization are reminding him that he'll get the most credit if the team wins. They feel he saw that in action with Team USA at the FIBA Basketball World Cup last summer. Harden led the team in scoring, but everyone from Klay Thompson to Kenneth Faried picked up "cred points" for helping the team win gold.

The shock of the trade that sent Harden from Oklahoma City to Houston in 2012 has worn off. Their meetings are no longer so emotional.

Before he took some practice shots an hour prior to the game, Harden chatted with Thunder assistant coach Rex Kalamian, then assistant general manager Troy Weaver stopped by to say hello. Then, he blitzed the Thunder with 15 points in the first quarter.

"For me, it's just a normal game," Harden said. "A lot of great memories there. But it's been a couple of years now, and I'm adjusted very well here. So, um, yeah."

When 31 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds against his ex-team feels like a "normal game," it shows just how far Harden's game has progressed. So, um, yeah.