When the Oklahoma City Thunder needed to step on the necks of a San Antonio Spurs team that had charged back from a 13-point deficit to get within one basket late in the fourth quarter on Monday night, they turned to their MVP candidate and reigning league scoring champion. And when he was covered, they turned to the Sixth Man of the Year. And they lost nothing.
James Harden knocked down a huge, contested, step-back 3-pointer over the outstretched right arm of San Antonio rookie Kawhi Leonard to give Scott Brooks' squad a 106-101 lead with 28.8 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. The Spurs answered with a Manu Ginobili layup and had a chance to tie it up after an inbounds trap by San Antonio resulted in a Thabo Sefolosha turnover (which could have been called a foul on Leonard, but let's not get started on the refs just yet). But a strong defensive sequence by the Thunder led to Ginobili taking a deep, fadeaway 3-pointer of his own. Unlike Harden, Ginobili missed, and the Thunder held on for an extremely impressive 108-103 road win that gives them a 3-2 lead in a Western Conference final in which they once trailed 0-2.
The shot capped a sensational fourth quarter for Harden, who scored 12 of his 20 points in the frame, hitting all five shots he took — one layup, three 3-pointers and a free-throw following a triple after Serge Ibaka blocked a Ginobili drive just past the midway point of the fourth to turn that huge 3-ball into an even bigger four-point play. The third-year pro out of Arizona State finished with 20 points on 6-for-11 shooting, four rebounds, three assists, two steals and no turnovers in 34 1/2 minutes of work.
Perhaps most impressive in the mix — and most deflating for Spurs fans — is that, as Harden noted in a postgame interview with TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager, he wasn't supposed to take that shot. He only did because the Spurs did their job.
With the Thunder hanging on to a 103-101 lead and just under 40 seconds left, James Harden dribbled the ball on the left side of the floor (natch) and looked to orchestrate a basket that would give OKC a critical two-possession lead in the closing seconds. Point guard Russell Westbrook — who had struggled for much of the fourth quarter, missing four shots and turning it over three times to go with his four final-frame assists, but who had just canned a huge jumper to answer two Ginobili free throws and keep the Thunder ahead — was stationed on the right-hand side of the court, right on the AT&T Center logo, while Sefolosha, Ibaka and Durant were spread out along the baseline under the Spurs' basket.
Harden pressed Leonard with the dribble as Westbrook cut down the right side, setting up for what appeared to be a screen to get a curling Durant free for a catch and potential midrange look at the right elbow or a 3-point try from the right wing. But as Harden started to penetrate, Ginobili stepped forward to present a double and turn him away, prompting Harden to turn his back to the right-hand side of the court. Seeing that, Westbrook wisely backtracked behind the 3-point line and into Harden's line of sight, offering him an escape option and pressure release if the double got to him that would enable OKC to trigger a secondary option with about eight seconds left on the shot clock.
His curl option taken away, Durant flashes to the paint, bringing Stephen Jackson across the lane and drawing the attention of Tim Duncan, while Ibaka sneaks out to a spot along the right baseline to be ready to put up a midrange jumper if a quick ball swing from Harden to Westbrook leaves the Thunder in need of an option in the dwindling seconds. But rather than give up the ball, Harden retreats, which sends Ginobili scurrying back to the left corner to pick up Sefolosha, who has to be respected in the near corner after hitting 47 percent of his corner 3-point attempts during the regular season (though he's made just 26.3 percent during the postseason and three of 10 against the Spurs).
It also draws Leonard out past the arc and again gives Harden a one-on-one matchup that, with the initial design blown up, is OKC's best option at this stage. Harden takes a first dribble from left to right and a step toward the middle of the floor, which, if you've been following the lefty, you know isn't somewhere he tends to like to go. But he can still go that way effectively enough to have to be respected on the move, which is why Leonard drops back toward the free-throw line ... except driving middle was never Harden's intention. He steps back behind the 3-point arc, having created a couple of feet of airspace to rise and fire, and then calmly sinks the long ball over the closing rookie. Five-point lead, two-possession game.
After the game, Harden confirmed that Brooks didn't call his number. From Ben Golliver at CBSSports.com:
"The ball was supposed to go to Kevin," Harden said [...] "The shot clock was running down down, and I had to make a play. Leonard was playing very good defense on me. I just tried to shoot it with confidence." [...]
Harden answered a quick "no" when asked if he had ever hit a bigger shot during his career.
"Western Conference finals, it's a big shot," he said. "You know Kevin and Russell are going to step up; role players have to be aggressive and step up, too. So I just try and take my shot with confidence."
With role players like these, who needs stars?
Their backs against the wall, the Spurs must now head to Chesapeake Energy Arena and get a win in Wednesday night's Game 6 to keep their season alive. If they can't, the Thunder will be representing the Western Conference in the NBA finals.
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