From 7:26 to 4:13 of the fourth quarter last night against Houston, the Thunder scored on seven straight trips. Nine if you include offensive rebounds. Ten if you include a steal by Durant that led to a free throw.
All 10 of those possessions had a common denominator: James Harden was running point guard.
From 2:30 to the finish, the Thunder scored on only two of their final seven possessions. James Harden was not running point guard then.
Now, it’s important to note that the defense really is to blame more than anything else. When you’re up 11 with two minutes left, you should have enough points to win a game, assuming you make free throws. And the point of this isn’t to point a finger at Russell Westbrook, who hadn’t turned the ball over once the first 46 minutes of the game and was mostly putting in another stellar performance, but more to look at Harden running point.
Since the loss of Eric Maynor, the Thunder have kind of been trying to figure out exactly what they have behind Westbrook. You can’t play Russ the full 48 minutes — actually, you probably could… — so it’s mostly been the job of Reggie Jackson to keep Oklahoma City ticking while Westbrook sits.
We’ve seen Scott Brooks use Harden as a point guard at times, but mostly in the way the Thunder like to interchange who brings the ball up. Sometimes KD runs “point,” while Westbrook is off the ball. Sometimes Perk runs point too, but that’s not intentional. Anyway, as the postseason approaches where each minute is more important than the last, it’s become apparent that Brooks has the option to just use Harden as his de facto backup point man.
That was on display last night against the Rockets as Harden completely dissected the Houston defense in the fourth quarter. The Thunder ran a simple pick-and-roll with Harden and just let him make a decision out of that. He’s such a savvy, smart player that each choice he makes is calculated. It’s like he’s got his own version of Synergy in his heads where he can see the play developing before it happens.
But why did Brooks go away from it? Well, as you see in the above video which is every possession of Harden running point, the Thunder failed on his final two possessions in charge of the offense. One was a Harden turnover that nearly resulted in KD being killed and the second a shot clock violation. Brooks said the Rockets changed up their defense, but really, the change was that the Thunder didn’t run pick-and-roll at all, instead just isolating Harden. They essentially put him in the nightmare Russell Westbrook often has had to live with, standing alone at the top of the key with no ball movement and the shot clock breathing down his neck.
Things had completely stalled out, for whatever reason, so Brooks turned to the trusty Westbrook-Durant two-man game. If the offense was going to go stagnant, at least have the ball in the hands of Westbrook or Durant who have proven time and again they can hit tough shots. That much made sense. What didn’t, was why the Thunder stopped running that pick-and-roll with Harden? Brooks saw the offense fail twice in the hands of Harden and probably felt like he’d wrung every drop of that set he could. But in hindsight, he should’ve at least tried the set that had worked seven straight times at least once more. Get Harden in that pick-and-roll and let him create something.
I like the Thunder’s development in closing games with the Durant-Westbrook sidescreen-and-roll. Or just getting Durant the ball in a workable position. Both have been really effective. But the point is, having Harden take charge in late situation adds a third dynamic, something that should make the Thunder’s crunch time sets more diverse and that much harder to defend.
You’ve just got to trust it.