The two teams that finished atop the Western Conference remain mostly in tact with one exception: James Harden.
Harden, who was recently traded to the Houston Rockets for veteran Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and future considerations, will be absent from the Thunder roster.
Harden averaged 18.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists in the Western Conference Finals. Harden drained the dagger step-back 3-pointer, against the rookie Kawhi Leonard, that gave Oklahoma City a five-point lead with 28 seconds left in Game 5. The win, in the unfriendly confines of the AT&T Center, fostered an emergence from the young Thunder squad that carried over to the first game of the NBA Finals.
The reigning Sixth Man of the Year struggled against the Heat. Oklahoma City, devoid of their third weapon, lost in five games. The Heat limited the league’s second most efficient player, in terms of true shooing percentage, to 37.5 percent shooting.
Both instances indicate one thing: Harden was pretty important through one way or another.
Against the Spurs, Harden gave coach Scott Brooks a safety valve for the second unit. He didn’t need Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook to score; all he really needed was a willing pick-and-roll partner, generally Nick Collison, and some shooters. The Thunder offense could only actualize their full potential when Harden was on the floor. The difference with Harden in the lineup, inconsequently enough, was about 13 points per 100 possessions — a significant margin.
Oklahoma City will be at odds to replace Harden. The best to do so would be Martin, who will enter the same role as Harden.
In terms of efficiency, the difference between the two is negligible. Martin won’t create for others in the same way as Harden, relegating the duty to backup point guard Eric Maynor, but he is a good enough spot-up shooter and perimeter slasher to warrant defensive attention. For his career, Martin has averaged 7.6 free throw attempts per 36 minutes. 17-year veteran Kobe Bryant averages 7.5 free throws per 36 minutes.
What does that mean exactly? It merely means that Martin may be the perfect third option alongside Durant and Westbrook. He can simply take advantage of their talent by spacing around the perimeter or draw contact on dives to the rim.
He isn’t Harden but for the reigning Western Conference champions, he may be good enough.
Coping without Harden: In his first game as a member of the Houston Rockets — a mere four days removed from the Oklahoma City roster — James Harden exploded to the tune of 37 points, 12 assists, six rebounds and four 3-pointers. His entire arsenal was at display and with more creative flexibility, Harden thrived. The Thunder, meanwhile, will be without their top creator off the bench, a role in which Kevin Martin will need to fill.
Regression to the mean: Aside from superior athleticism, the Thunder were especially proficient in the mid-range area in the Western Conference Finals. The team, as a whole, converted on 48 percent of their mid-range attempts in the according to NBA.com/Stats. The average NBA squad makes about 38 percent of their mid-range attempts. Expect some regression to the mean (eventually) for the Thunder offense, which finished second in offensive efficiency last season.
Where to watch: The game will be shown on TNT nationally at 8:30 p.m. CST. It will also air on stations 1200 WOAI and 1350 KCOR in Spanish.
Injury report: Manu Ginobili (back spasms) is questionable. Spurs beat writer Jeff McDonald doesn’t expect Ginobili to play in tonight’s game.