James Harden knew the attention – the cameras, the expectations and most of all the opposing defense – would all be focused on him. “It comes with the package,” he said. But he also knew the matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder would push it all to dramatically greater levels of scrutiny and pressure.

He said he had not yet processed his thoughts about beginning his first playoff series with the Rockets against his former team, thinking instead of the still-fresh loss to the Lakers that sent him and the Rockets to the eighth seed and a Sunday opener in Oklahoma City. But he immediately knew the story line and demands to come.

“I have to do a good job of handling it well, making sure I’m doing the right things,” Harden said. “Obviously, I’m new to this. I might make some mistakes, but just continue to work at it.

“As a leader, as the head honcho guy, having all the attention on me – it’s new to me. But I’m trying my best to do a good job with it.”

His importance to the Rockets’ chances had long since become obvious, though never more-so than in the Rockets three games against the Thunder. In the Rockets two losses – both played in the second game in two nights with the first adding the emotional and travel-taxing trip between games to attend the memorial service for Kevin McHale’s daughter Sasha – Harden struggled and the Rockets were blown out.

Harden went 3 of 17 in the loss in Oklahoma City; 6 of 17 in Houston. The Rockets lost by a combined 52 points. In the third meeting, with the Rockets short-handed because of the then-pending trades of Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, Toney Douglas and Cole Aldrich, Harden scored a career-high 46 points and the Rockets rallied from a 14-point fourth quarter deficit to the win.

All three games demonstrated the Rockets’ offense at its best and worst. In the losses, the Thunder trapped hard on pick-and-roll ballhandlers and quickly rotated to the lane. The Rockets player and ball movement broke down, as it did in the final 10 minutes in Los Angeles, and the Thunder dominated. In the Rockets win, the Rockets pace-and-space offense got them early open shots, the Rockets hit 15 3-pointers and made 47.8 percent of their shots in a 122-119 win.