For a while there, everything seemed to be going right for James Harden. Sure, he'd missed a few shots and complained a little about lack of opportunities in Game 1, but his team won and all seemed to be forgiven from both sides. Then, in Game 2, Harden put together a contest that reminded us of his turn as the most efficient pure scorer these playoffs had seen so far — 21 points on only 11 shots, seven trips to the line, nailed 2 of 3 3-pointers, all in under 35 minutes.
In his 34th minute and the final overall minute of Game 2, though, Harden gave an unnecessary foul on LeBron James that just about sealed the game in Miami's favor. It wasn't as obvious a mistake as Russell Westbrook's unfortunate intentional foul late in Game 4, but it was much-derided and the most significant thing many took from Harden's otherwise-spectacular Game 2 performance. Since then? He's been a wreck, typified by an embarrassing play late in Game 4 that even after a few viewings (and fantastic web breakdowns) of that particular Heat win I haven't been able to watch a second time — seriously, it makes me that uneasy to watch Harden flail like that. And this is from someone who likes his humor all British and cringe-y.
So what happens from here? How does the Thunder get their third seed, of sorts, back to bearing fruit? It is a necessity at this point, because Harden at times was the biggest reason the Thunder went on a legendarily stout offensive run to start the playoffs; an efficient turn that was somewhat masked by the team's low-ish possession count. His combination of sound drives, accurate 3-pointers and free-throw line marksmanship made just about every possession he used up an absolute killer for defenses, but with that threat dimmed the Thunder are going to have a terrible time attempting to extend the 2012 NBA Finals past a fifth game.
His needed presence as a scorer cannot be overstated. Charged with working on LeBron James at times and playing entire quarters at a time, Kevin Durant has to be mindful of his legs and shot attempts as he picks and prods his way to 30-some points. Russell Westbrook was clearly the business in Game 4, but expecting or especially leaning on another 43-point performance in Game 5 is going to put the Thunder away before the first whistle even blows. And while coach Scott Brooks can work around the edges — possibly securing a score on that token post-up for Kendrick Perkins, watching as Derek Fisher finally hits a 3-pointer or two, running a screen and roll for the athletic Nick Collison to finish on — Harden's return to prominence has to be the thing that puts OKC over the top.
It's so obvious, a between-game talking point that isn't actually hyped up despite how simple it seems. Dude has to come back. Has to.
The trick is going to be Brooks' to make, possibly taking a page from the book of his counterpart in Miami, and how he's managed to free Dwyane Wade at times during what has been an up and down playoff run for the future Hall of Famer. Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has managed to run plays that, because of their quickness and simplicity, don't require Wade to slowly load up and consider each bent knee or extended arm as he readies his shot. The less thinking, even for this cerebral All-Star, the better. And just about any time you've seen Wade pull a fast one, so to speak, against Indiana, Boston and Oklahoma City? You're picturing it now. The ball is going in.
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Brooks has to find the right balance of making Harden a precious commodity, and an influence. A point of emphasis without clearing the pool and announcing that, hey everybody, we're going to Run Something For James Harden To Turn It All Around. The obvious answer to the obvious question cannot be executed in an obvious fashion, as Harden slowly loads his way toward his screen and roll. It can't be something that Mike Breen calls out before Harden even lets go of his first dribble after catching it on the wing.
No, James needs quick jabs. Quick moves and plays that run off of muscle memory, and not "got to get him going." The sorts of plays that, before you know it, have him heading into the locker room at halftime with nine points on just five shots. And not replicating a two-game turn in Miami that has seen him finish with more turnovers (six) than made shots (four, in 20 attempts from the floor).
It really is that necessary, and that desperate, by the way. We're not usually full of over the top pronouncements in these pages, but Brooks and Harden's ability and acumen in turning it all around in Game 5 will decide this series, and their team's season. Whether they play one more game or three.
The pressure — that heavy, heavy pressure — is on both. We don't envy them.
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