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Ex-teammates Harden, Westbrook now in similar boats

One plays with such a fury it's like he's listening to the jarring beats of house music.

The other plays with a smooth pace, like a jazz musician improvising on the big stage.

Russell Westbrook, the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard, charges toward the rim at a sprite-like pace and shoots 3-pointers with a menacing look. James Harden, the Houston Rockets point guard, easily splits defenders, casually hits 3s and discovers cutting teammates for buckets.

While their games and demeanors are different, the former teammates, who meet Wednesday night in Oklahoma City, are going through something that might change them for better or worse: becoming the faces of their respective franchises.

"For sure," Harden said. "Honestly, I'm just trying to come out here and find ways to help my team and learn how to be a better leader and grow and how to get everybody on the same page to where we all got one goal, superstar or not, whoever is on the team, to make sure we're on the same page."

Dwight Howard left the Rockets this summer, tired of complaining for the ball on a team that was looking for a more agile center. The departure wasn't messy, but it was clear Howard wanted to go in a different direction. While there was speculation that Harden and Howard weren't getting along, Harden said, "We never got into a heated argument — it just didn't work out."

It left Harden as the lone superstar to carry the torch of a franchise coming off a 41-41 season.

The Rockets built their team around Harden. In free agency, the Rockets devoted $133 million over eight years to sign Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, established shooters who have elevated Harden into the MVP conversation. Harden leads the league in assists, touches and points created off his assists while scoring 30.3 points per game.

In OKC, there had not been plans to build solely around Westbrook. But Kevin Durant made his July 4 announcement that he was going to Golden State, suddenly changing the franchise's plans.

It forced the Thunder — a team coming off a Western Conference finals appearance — to regroup. Durant and Westbrook had pushed the Thunder to a 3-1 lead, only to lose in seven games to the Warriors.

Now, similar to Harden's situation in Houston, Westbrook is alone as the face of the franchise in OKC.

"I like winning," Westbrook said. "The more we win, the better I feel like I become as a player. My teammates get better. I feel like I've done my job as far as coming back better and being a better leader."

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When Westbrook and Durant met on Nov. 3, there was no acknowledgement of each other. Westbrook walked into the arena wearing a photographer's vest, something he thought was cool after seeing it overseas during the summer. Some interpreted it as a slight to Durant, who took photos for the Players Tribune website during the Super Bowl in February.

Harden thought Westbrook's attire was cool.

"That’s Russ' swag, man," Harden said. "I don't know if he was shooting a shot [at Durant], that's his swag. He said he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. I feel the same way."

Harden and Westbrook have another thing in common — their displeasure with Durant. Westbrook is upset at the star forward for leaving without giving him a final chance to talk. Harden is irked Durant didn't even give the Rockets a free-agent visit this summer; the organization was planning on such a meeting.

So now without Howard and Durant, the Rockets and Thunder rely on these talented guards to carry their teams.

Westbrook remains the best player on a younger Thunder team. His frustration levels are higher now with opposing teams focusing on stopping him late in games and forcing other players to step up. In the midst of a three-game losing streak, Westbrook was swarmed by Toronto, missed a rushed potential game winner to the Clippers and watched helplessly as former teammate Serge Ibaka returned to score 31 points for the Magic, spoiling Westbrook's triple-double.

These are moments when Westbrook must show patience with his young group and new tag-team partner, Victor Oladipo.

"I'm looking at everything," Westbrook said. "I'm looking at guys seeing if their confidence is high, seeing if they're engaged in the game, seeing if they're locking in on what's going on, seeing if they're reading the coverages. I'm looking at everything in itself and not worrying about myself but just worried about other guys and making sure they're ready to play and making sure they know what's going on.

"Communication is key, not just for me, but for our team, when you're able to communicate what you see on the floor and make sure it happens."

Harden's leadership skills have progressed so much that he welcomes voices. The Rockets never liked Howard's silence when things went wrong. Harden wants players to speak up so the team can grow. He will challenge his teammates on and off the floor to become better, especially younger players such as K.J. McDaniels and Sam Dekker.

"It's OK to have more than one leader on the team," Harden said. "You guys have to be on the same page and have the same goal and that's it obviously. All the guys on the team are leaders, they have an opinion, a voice and they speak it. You got to be able to back that up and put the work in and prove to the team you're a leader — not just talk about it."

As the season moves forward, the leadership skills of Harden and Westbrook will be dissected.

And that's one more thing the two very different players have in common.

ESPN staff writer Royce Young contributed to this report

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