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Thunder out to prove they're better without Harden

Friday - 4/19/2013, 7:10pm  ET

JEFF LATZKE
AP Sports Writer

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- When the Oklahoma City Thunder decided it was time to part ways with James Harden and trade him away to Houston near the end of training camp, coach Scott Brooks wanted his team to move on as quickly as possible without being cold to a sensitive situation.

Having just lost in the NBA Finals a few months earlier, the Thunder were about to embark on a season with the highest of expectations when they couldn't agree with Harden on terms to extend his contract past this season.

Nearly six months later, the question still remains: Can Oklahoma City somehow be better despite trading away one of the NBA's budding superstars?

Harden blossomed in Houston, becoming an All-Star and the NBA's fifth-leading scorer in his first opportunity to be a franchise's featured player. He led the Rockets to the postseason for the first time in four years and, as fate would have it, they'll face his former team in the opening round.

Game 1 is Sunday night in Oklahoma City.

So far, the Thunder -- who would have had to go well over the salary cap to get close to the maximum deal Harden got in Houston -- have shown they could be better without him.

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Co. posted a higher winning percentage than in any of their three seasons with Harden and earned the top seed in the Western Conference for the first time since 1996 as the Seattle SuperSonics.

But all that will be forgotten if they flame out before the Finals.

"This league can set you up for a lot of excuses -- where you have an injury, where you have a trade, where you have a back-to-back, where you have four in five nights, where you're playing against two good teams back to back," Brooks said after a lengthy practice Friday.

"You don't make excuses. You do your job and you have that no-excuse mentality, and I think that's the reason why we've been able to push this team forward with Kevin and Russell being our leaders."

Harden, who accepted a bench role in Oklahoma City and became the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year, became a superstar in his own right while scoring 25.9 points per game this season for the Rockets. Only Carmelo Anthony, Durant, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James averaged more.

No one player has filled Harden's void with the Thunder. Durant and Westbrook took on even more ball-handling and play-making responsibilities. Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka contributed the best statistical seasons of their careers. Kevin Martin, the primary player received by Oklahoma City in the Harden trade, took over the sixth-man role while producing about 3 less points and 2
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