Can Andre Roberson emerge as Thunder's James Harden-stopper?

The most valuable lessons for Oklahoma City Thunder swingman Andre Roberson came during practices with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. He would defend Durant with fury before the former league MVP left via free agency, and now challenges Westbrook with his combination of size and technique.

He was the No. 26 overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, a year after the franchise moved James Harden to the Houston Rockets. Harden and Westbrook are leading MVP candidates and two of the league’s most potent all-around offensive threats. So on the eve of the Thunder’s opening game against Houston in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, Roberson has focused his defensive principals on Harden.

“I get to face these great players on a nightly basis, like Kevin Durant, being one of the top scorers, and he’s seen it in practice and seen our battles,” Roberson told The Vertical. “For James, I don’t want to be putting him on the foul line because that way he can get going. He cannot only get a feel for the game that way, but he can get me out of the game. James is the motor of their team.

James Harden is defended closely by the Thunder’s Andre Roberson. (AP)
James Harden is defended closely by the Thunder’s Andre Roberson. (AP)

“Defensively, I got my hands full. I know that will be my responsibility. I just have to make it tough for him and frustrate him, and it starts with the small things.”

In his fourth season, Roberson is vying for a spot on the All-Defensive team and possible Defensive Player of the Year votes. He averaged 6.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 79 games (72 starts), with the responsibility of potentially guarding all five positions on a given night. He shoots just 24.6 percent from three-point range and knows he must be closer to his 31.1 percent mark from last season. Roberson reveres the challenges from the West’s top wing players – Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Gordon Hayward – and now Harden looms.

Roberson, 25, played three seasons at Colorado and molded himself into an immediate NBA defender. Around Westbrook and Durant, defensive specialists and slashers to the basket were valued. “We knew how dynamic those two are with the ball, so our job was to impact games defending, cutting, doing the other work,” Roberson said. Westbrook averaged a triple-double, breaking Oscar Robertson’s record for most in a season, and around one star Roberson’s directive remained the same.

“My drive started from when I was younger, and I’ve always kept the chip on my shoulder,” Roberson told The Vertical. “I wanted to reach the same level as everyone else, experience success, and my path became clearer. I wanted longevity in my career and I like finding a niche. It feels good when great players acknowledge you, whether it’s an opponent or Russell or KD. I get to face these great players on a nightly basis, and I just go out there and try to do my job.

“It has always been one of my personal goals to be on one of the All-Defensive teams. It would mean a lot to me. I cherish coming so far, coming a long way, with whoever wants to doubt your game.”

Early in the season, Westbrook went public with his support for Roberson, believing people were ignoring his defensive contributions. Within the locker room, the Thunder’s leader is even firmer in supporting his supporting cast. It’s why Oklahoma City relished his historic season, why – from Roberson, Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams to Taj Gibson, Semaj Christon and Alex Abrines – this group completely supports Westbrook’s decision-making.

“We would go out there and sacrifice ourselves for not just Russell – but we would for each other,” Roberson told The Vertical. “We’re a close-knit team. We go out there, and we got each other’s back. We’ll ride or die for each other.

“Some nights, we have to impact the game by scoring. Some nights, it’s defensively. We do it for each other.”

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