Thunder’s James Harden thrives off the bench

Reporting from Oklahoma City -- The awe of playing against the very Lakers he had watched as a kid growing up in Southern California faded long ago, James Harden maintained.

The awe of playing against Kobe Bryant, one of his favorite players while attending Lakewood Artesia High, has been a thing of the past, Harden claimed.

That all went away when Harden and the Oklahoma City Thunder played the Lakers for the first time during the regular season, back in November.

But as a rookie playing in his first postseason series, Harden looked to be in awe in the first two Western Conference playoff games played in Los Angeles last week.

He couldn’t make a shot. He looked nervous. He didn’t get the playing time he had gotten during the regular season.

Still, Harden said he was not in awe of the Lakers or of Bryant when the playoffs started.

That proved to be the case again in Game 4 on Saturday night at the Ford Center, when Harden came off the bench for 15 points, five rebounds and four assists before fouling out of the Thunder’s 110-89 victory, which tied the first-round best-of-seven series, 2-2

“Obviously, that first game in the regular season was one of those games where, ‘I’m out here playing the Lakers,’ ” Harden said. “But now, we’ve played them several times, so it’s not about the Lakers anymore. It’s about the Thunder and what we do.”

The undersized Thunder has been fronting the Lakers’ seven-footers, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.

The idea, Thunder Coach Scott Brooks said, is to protect the paint.

It worked again.

Bynum and Gasol each finished with 13 points.

“They’ve got inside guys that can score,” Brooks said. “We just try to limit their touches.”

Harden missed his first five shots and all four of his three-point shots in the first two games. His playing time dipped to 10 minutes in Game 1 and 16 in Game 2.

But then he returned home for Game 3 on Thursday night and was a new player. He had 18 points. He was four for seven from the field and three for four from three-point range. He played 32 minutes.

In Game 4, he scored on his first shot, a drive that drew a foul. He also made a three-pointer over Bryant, who fouled him. Harden made the free throw for a rare four-point play.

He was three for six in Game 4.

“It was hard work in the gym, extra work,” Harden said.