Two great players can’t win an NBA championship. Just ask the Miami Heat.
Three great players? That might get it done. Just ask the Miami Heat, during the occasional outstanding Chris Bosh performance. Better yet, just ask the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Casual NBA fans check the box scores, see that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are taking most of the Thunder’s shots, and assume OKC is a two-man show. Real NBA fans watch the games and walk away shaking their heads, muttering, “The ____________ had no answer for Harden.”
Tonight, the defending champion Dallas Mavericks were the team in that blank space. They had no answer for Harden.
More specifically, they had no answer for Harden in the fourth quarter, a time when he spent most of the season yielding to his All-Star teammates. Tonight, with Westbrook struggling (3-12 from the field, 0-4 on three-pointers), Harden seized control of the offense – a condition that has led to some of his team’s best results the past two seasons.
They entered the fourth quarter trailing by 13 points, a deficit that lasted all of 22 seconds before Harden found Daequan Cook for three. The bearded one then went on one of the most extraordinary runs of the postseason, scoring or assisting on 15 straight Thunder points. By the time the dust settled, Dallas’ lead had evaporated and the sweep seemed imminent.
Of course, they wouldn’t be the Oklahoma City Thunder if their crunch-time decision-making was impeccable. Leading 100-95 with under two minutes to play, Harden and then Durant settled for contested 27-foot heaves as some Bizarro World version of “going for the jugular.” When Dallas couldn’t respond offensively, Harden begrudgingly sealed the win with a drive down the middle for a 5-point lead with 10 seconds left.
Harden was the night’s most obvious hero, but a few others deserve mention for shepherding the Thunder to the Conference Semifinals.
Derek Fisher: The season’s most-ballyhooed, least-impactful acquisition turned back the clock for a 12-point outing, hitting two three-pointers during an otherwise miserable third quarter for the Thunder. Without his steady shooting, Harden’s heroics would have been moot.
Westbrook: Continued his series-long maturation by refusing to force up hero shots and turning his fourth-quarter focus to defense. His back-to-back steals with just over five minutes left got the Thunder its first lead of the second half.
Ball Movement: Harden is the Thunder’s best offensive facilitator because his penchant for dribbling doesn’t eschew the notion of passing. When he, instead of Westbrook, serves as the team’s primary ball-handler, everyone functions at maximum effectiveness. The stats showed all tonight: Oklahoma City’s 22 assists on 39 made field goals represented its best assist ratio of the postseason by a wide margin.
The Thunder have earned at least four days of rest now, and perhaps more if Denver can continue to battle the Lakers. Of all playoff teams, Oklahoma City may actually need a layoff least, but they have to relish the notion of throwing fresh legs at a weary second-round opponent. Their time is now.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.