Victor Oladipo never played a minute with James Harden in a Rockets uniform, but he still felt the weight of the moment as Harden faced his old teams at the Toyota Center for the first time Wednesday night.
Harden, who forced his way out of Houston in a trade to Brooklyn in January, was victorious – 132-114 – during the return to the place he called home for eight seasons. The perennial All-Star dropped a triple-double on his old team, 29 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists, as a reminder of what has been lost.
“I just wanted to play, try to win,” said Oladipo, who was a key piece in the multi-team trade that sent Harden to Brooklyn and brought the Rockets a load of future first-round draft picks. “Obviously, it’s momentum in the game because of the situation and things happen. But for the most part, I just wanted to win. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do that.
“I was just focused on trying to get a Dub.”
While providing a few moments of excitement, it was mainly a futile effort for the Rockets who head into the All-Star Break on a 13-game losing streak and with the second-worst record (11-23) in the Western Conference.
The fortunes have been quite the opposite for Harden, who has teamed with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn to form the most unstoppable offensive team in the league. What’s interesting for the Nets is they sit just a half game behind No.1 Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference going into the All-Star Break and the trio has only played together seven out 23 possible games. Yet, they have won nine of their last 10 games.
Harden has clearly been that unstoppable offensive piece the Nets were missing prior to his arrival in January.
His return to Houston was met with some boos, but mostly it was a night of respect from those in attendance for the player who kept the Rockets in the hunt during much of his time here. Harden mostly downplayed the importance and the emotions of facing his old teammates.
“A lot of mixed emotions from the fans, but I knew that was going to happen,” Harden said. “I just wanted to come out and give them a show.”
Harden did seem genuinely touched by Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta’s vow to retire his jersey soon. While owning that the biggest shortcoming during his time with the Rockets was never bringing the city an NBA title, Harden said retiring his No.13 jersey is acknowledgment that he did a lot right on and off the court in Houston.
“My reaction is hopefully I did something right,” he said. “Obviously, I came up short of a championship, but the work on and off the court over those past eight years was elite.
“I think the only thing I didn’t accomplish is the championship, which is difficult to obtain. But as far as bringing excitement to this city, taking care of the fans on and off the court is something I tried to contribute. So hopefully that outweighs that.”
On the court Wednesday night, Harden was the same spectacular player he had been with the Rockets. Only this time, fans and his old teammates saw his performance from the opposing side.
“No matter if he is on the Rockets or Brooklyn or whoever he is with, we know how talented James is,” said Rockets guard John Wall. “And you surround an MVP and one of the best scorers this game has ever seen with the kind of talent he has, it makes it a lot more difficult to guard him.”
First-year Rockets coach Stephen Silas didn’t address Harden by name when asked how the team handled his return, but he seemed pleased with the fight his shorthanded team showed in the second half.
“We tried hard, but obviously only having eight guys makes it really hard,” Silas said. “You have to be on it every play, and we made some mistakes that they took advantage of.
“Overall, I thought we handled it well. Obviously, they are a very good team, the best offensive team in the league. They are hard to stop and they are hard to plan for.”
Follow Terrance Harris on Twitter @terranceharris