OKLAHOMA CITY – James Harden was not inside Chesapeake Energy Arena on Tuesday night when the Oklahoma City Thunder played the Sacramento Kings.
That was to be expected.
Past that, the Thunder don’t know what to expect.
Harden suffered a concussion Sunday when he was elbowed by Los Angeles Lakers forward Metta World Peace. The NBA suspended World Peace for seven games Tuesday.
“If the league did it, you have to live with it,” OKC’s Kevin Durant said of the suspension. “We can move past it now. We’re just worried about getting James back in the locker room.”
Harden was absent from the locker room Tuesday evening, but he tweeted Tuesday morning that he’s “Feeling good.” Harden was not cleared to play and still is being evaluated. He will have to pass a series of league-mandated concussion tests before he is cleared to play.
That could happen Wednesday or it might not happen until much later. No one knows for sure, which is why Harden is listed officially as day to day.
“We will see him tomorrow morning,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Tuesday. “He’s doing good, but he still has to pass the tests and evaluation that the NBA has on concussions. We’ll see how he does tomorrow, and we’ll go from there.”
Tuesday, the Thunder beat Sacramento 118-110. The Thunder will wrap up the regular season with a home game Wednesday against Denver. Brooks said it was a possibility Harden could play against the Nuggets, but with the Thunder guaranteed to be the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, there’s no urgency on the team’s part to play Harden.
However, when the playoffs start — either Saturday or Sunday — the need to have Harden back will become more urgent.
“It’s important to be healthy,” Brooks said. “It doesn’t matter how you’re playing if you’re not healthy and you’re going to have a tough time winning in this league. There’s eight very good teams in each conference in the playoffs. You’re not guaranteed a win because you have a higher seed.”
Harden’s absence would be significant, considering he was a leading candidate to win the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award. Harden is averaging 16.8 points per game — tops among all reserves in the league — and is shooting 49.1 percent from the field.
He was at the team’s Tuesday morning shootaround and seemed OK, forward Kevin Durant said.
“He looked fine,” Durant said. “Hopefully everything is fine.”
He’ll have to be better than that if the Thunder are going to challenge in the Western Conference. Harden’s scoring average, third on the team behind Durant and Russell Westbrook, will be nearly impossible to replace. No one else on the Thunder bench averages more than Daequan Cook’s 5.1 points. Harden is also averaging more than 31 minutes per game.
Tuesday also seemed to be an evaluation for the Thunder bench players. The starters didn’t play at all in the fourth quarter, leaving the game to Cook and reserves Derek Fisher and Royal Ivey. The Thunder bench came through with 48 points.
But Cook made his case for the one to take over Harden’s minutes. He was sensational Tuesday against the Kings, going for 19 points, all of which he scored in the fourth quarter as the Thunder outscored rallied. But reliance on Cook could be dangerous. He was great Tuesday, but he has been shaky of late, making more than one field goal in a game just once in the past eight games. He played 21 minutes against the Kings, but has played more than 13 just once in the past eight games as well. In that same span, Cook is 7-for-26 shooting.
“Daequan was phenomenal in the fourth and it was good for us to get that confidence,” Durant said. “Tonight going to him in the fourth, like we usually do James, Dequan was that guy, and he was able to come through for us.”
If Harden misses playoff time, look for Ivey, Fisher and possibly Reggie Jackson to take to play if the minutes are granted to Cook. Or consider, Brooks might just go with Westbrook for the entirety and keep the bench players on the bench.
“Whatever role Coach has me in, that’s what it is,” Ivey said. “I’m going out there to compete and do what I do.”
The only problem is that no one really does what Harden does. But Thunder players and Brooks weren’t talking playoffs Tuesday or worried about the World Peace suspension. They were more concerned about Harden’s health and when he could return.
“I’m focused on James and our team,” Brooks said. “You’re only concerned with James and our team. That’s the only thing I’m focused on. We’re moving on and going forward. I I was just made aware at halftime (of the suspension). That’s a league issue. We’re focused on making sure James comes back healthy and our team finishes out strong. I have nothing else to say about it.”