Dallas’ Jason Terry finished second in this year’s Sixth Man of the Year Award voting, then spent the Western Conference Semifinals shoving it in the face of winner Lamar Odom. Tonight, it was Thunder super-sub James Harden’s turn to submit his case as the postseason’s best reserve.
Harden scored 23 points in just 32 minutes off the bench, authoring the latest in a series of stellar playoff performances. Once again, he led the way in an Oklahoma City win: in the last two playoff rounds, he’s averaging 17.8 points in wins, 10.8 in losses.
When Harden plays as he did tonight, it’s not hyperbolic to suggest that the Thunder have three All-Star caliber performers.
Actually, the two-headed monster known as Nick Collison-Eric Maynor arguably gives them a fourth, on its good days. Tonight was one of them, as the two joined Harden to spearhead the Thunder’s second-quarter run to erase an early deficit. They also may have been the first tandem in the playoffs to solve the J.J. Barea dilemma, as Maynor took advantage of Dallas’ mighty mite on defense to help offset his contributions at the other end.
Maynor was a game-high +18 in Game 2, and Coach Scott Brooks, criticized for some of his lineup decisions during the playoffs, deserves credit for his courageous decision to stick with Maynor over a still-struggling Russell Westbrook for much of the second half, including the entire fourth quarter.
Brooks could easily have lost the series with a poorer lineup choice, because his team trailed until late in the second period and faced the prospect of heading home with an 0-2 deficit.
Thanks to the superb play from his bench, though, Brooks can now force observers to wonder whether the Thunder could be headed for a sweep if Dirk Nowitzki had been just slightly more human in Game 1.
After all, lost in the justified gushing over Nowitzki’s historic opening-game performance was the fact that the Thunder actually seemed in control after one quarter. Tonight, it was just the opposite until Maynor replaced Westbrook late in the first quarter and helped cut a 28-17 deficit to just 31-26 at the period’s end.
Westbrook finally got a few jump shots to fall, but again struggled around the hoop, finishing just 2-6 from inside 10 feet. He also had only four assists despite dominating the ball during his time on the court.
It didn’t matter because of the help he got from his friends. Kevin Durant once again kept his team afloat in the early going, scoring 14 points in the first quarter and providing a potential signature moment for the series with an Amare Stoudemire-esque throwdown over Brendan Haywood.
It was fun to watch him and Nowitzki break the 40-point barrier in Game 1, but more satisfying for both perhaps to take fewer shots and get more support tonight. Dirk was scarcely less scorching tonight, hitting 10 of 17 field goals and finally missing a free throw, but the Thunder were able to avoid the silly fouls that allowed him to score half his points from the line on Tuesday.
The Thunder’s young players have proven themselves capable of following a great performance with a poor one throughout these playoffs, so the pressure is on them to come out strong for Saturday’s Game 3. Dallas has persevered in numerous tough situations throughout this postseason. Oklahoma City can’t afford any more slow starts if it’s to be the team that finally slows down the Mavs.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.