Heading into Wednesday night's Game 5 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, James Harden had not performed especially well in his first playoff series as member of the Houston Rockets. In the first four games, Harden put up a solid 101 points on distinctly less impressive 36.4 percent shooting from the field, including a 4-of-25 mark from beyond the arc. Some particularly impatient basketball fans went overboard in determining that Harden was not the franchise-defining star he proved himself to be over the course of the regular season, but he did look somewhat worn down.
Despite fighting flu-like symptoms throughout the day and missing the morning shootaround, Harden proved he had plenty of energy left. In a fairly comfortable 107-100 win, he scored 31 points on 10-of-19 shooting from the field and 7-of-9 from three-point range to lead six Rockets in double figures. A series that once looked headed towards a foregone conclusion now returns to Houston for Game 6 with the Rockets poised to even things up.
His top highlight of the night was this eminently confident three-pointer near the end of the third quarter. With the Rockets up 82-73 and 37 seconds on the clock, Harden let the inbounds pass roll very, very slowly into the frontcourt following a stoppage so that his team could have an easier time getting a two-for-one possession. Except, instead of playing out a full possession, Harden picked up the ball, took one dribble, and launched a three-pointer over OKC defender DeAndre Liggins.
This play wasn't merely cool — it also helped the Rockets rebuild their lead to 12 points by the end of the quarter following a 13-4 Thunder run to trim the lead from 16 to seven. Liggins absolutely played this possession incorrectly in not forcing to pick the ball up earlier, but it's very hard to imagine an opponent taking a shot like this one from a virtual standstill. Once Harden let the ball roll so far, the need to take a quick shot fell away. Simply put, this was the mark of a player believing in his full ability to defy standard operating procedure and take over on his own terms.
His former teammates with the Thunder could use some of that same confidence. After losing Russell Westbrook, OKC has looked like a severely diminished squad, which makes sense given that they've organized their entire game plan around him and Kevin Durant for several years. Not surprisingly, they've haven't been able to replace an irreplaceable player. They look far too dependent on Durant, who scored 36 points despite going scoreless in the fourth quarter, and appear uncertain as to how they can reverse their fortunes. While it's an open question as to whether head coach Scott Brooks should have implement a Hack-a-[Blank] strategy on Rockets big man Omer Asik over a two-minute stretch of the fourth quarter, it's nonetheless notable that the leader of the West's top seed felt he had to resort to this plan at all.
The Thunder still hold a 3-2 lead in this series, and they're strong enough to pull out a road win Friday and put themselves into the next round. But it's somewhat shocking how their prognosis has changed. Last Wednesday, they looked like the best bet to represent the West in the NBA Finals. Now they're trying to avoid becoming the first team in NBA history to blow a 3-0 series lead.