Just in case anyone needed a reminder that some lethargic play lately doesn’t mean Oklahoma City isn’t a contender, the Thunder found a third 40-point scorer on its roster.
James Harden finally had his explosive scoring game breakthrough Wednesday night in Phoenix, scoring 40 points in the Thunder’s 109-97 win over the Suns. Harden looked like one of the best players in the NBA, showcasing his entire skill set in a dominating performance that erased memories of a poor performance Monday in Los Angeles.
Harden started off the game by burying 3-pointers, hitting three of four in the first half. And while his 19 points were a sign that a career night from Harden was possible, there have been too many games in the past when a hot start still doesn’t mean he’s getting and making shots down the stretch, especially in a close game. But he came out attacking in the third quarter, and kept OKC on track for a win against the Suns when a lot of the rest of the Thunder offense was erratic.
In the second half, the Suns were about a half step closer to Harden after his barrage of first-half 3-pointers. He responded by getting to the rim and the line, busting out everything in his repertoire. He finished with 12-17 shooting, 5-8 from behind the arc and 11-11 from the line. Seven rebounds, four steals and three assists for good measure. Harden controlled the game.
It’s a glaring reminder that Harden should be more involved in the Thunder’s late-game sets. The guy is a weapon. A lot is made about his ability to make the right decision with the ball in his hands, and that’s especially valuable when some of the decisions involve getting the ball to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. But Harden can score in nearly as many ways as anyone in the NBA, and Oklahoma City could do a better job taking advantage of it. Durant and Westbrook effectively giving up one shot each per crunch time period could go a long way toward making better use of Harden’s talent late in games.
The exclamation point on what was otherwise a “that’s what should have happened” win in Phoenix — where the home team had its moments, but the superior visitors slowly cut off the air supply as the game wore on — came with some inspired help from Harden’s teammates. Durant overcame a lousy start to finish 7-10 from the floor in the second half and 29 points for the game. Durant’s suspect defense played a part in OKC’s slow start to the game, but, as is his custom, he got better as the game went on. And the Thunder in general played more inspired defense in the second half.
It’s a good way to get a bad taste out of the team’s mouth going into Sacramento, where the Kings already beat the Thunder early this season. And the weekend showdown against the Lakers.
The end result in the chase for the top seed was a wash yet again, as the Spurs won for the 384th straight time. The Heat and Bulls also won, so there was no movement in the overall No. 1 picture either. The No. 2 seed looks more likely by the day, but the matchups also look more favorable.
As Thunder fans savor Harden’s performance, the bitter taste of the Clippers game washes away pretty easily. But it would be best for OKC if there’s more to come from Harden in the playoffs, and it’s the coaching staff’s job to find a way to get him involved even more.
- The Suns went on a 9-0 run after Thunder scored the first bucket, in large part because OKC was settling for jumpers. The Suns were married to jumpers, too, but their 3-pointers were falling. Scott Brooks called a timeout when it was 15-6 Suns and Phoenix was 3-6 from behind the 3-point line, but the Suns kept going until their lead was 13 points. Safe to say the game didn’t get off to a good start for the Thunder.
- Phoenix’s success on jumpers was helpful in getting the Thunder to bite on the pump fake something fierce. Jared Dudley used it to good effect to drive into the lane.
- Dudley is a nice player. He doesn’t really have a true NBA position, but the guy makes smart plays and can make them from lots of different spots on the floor.
- Two rhythm 3-pointers from James Harden, a traditional 3-point play from KD and a Nick Collison free throw (with an invisible half-assist from Derek Fisher for setting him up with a nice pass) got the Thunder all the way back to level. The lesson, as always, is that bringing in Harden and Collison is a good idea in any scenario.
- Only the Thunder would go from up by two to down by 13 to up by four in the same quarter, with a rimmed-out 3-pointer at the buzzer from making it up by seven. The Thunder’s bench players were +14 or better in the first quarter while OKC made an 18-2 run.
- Michael Redd had a nice and-one on a cut to the basket in the second quarter. I didn’t know he still cut to the basket very much. Another feather in the cap of the Phoenix medical and training staff.
- Collison absolutely leveled Markieff Morris, his KU brethren, when Morris caught the ball behind the 3-point line. Collison basically just jumped right into him and dropped him right to the floor. I can’t wait to see some playoff screen-setting.
- Kendrick Perkins had a monster rebound and putback dunk in traffic. It seems like he ought to be able to do that twice a game instead of twice a month.
- Perk also picked up what could be his 13th technical foul (although they said 12 on the broadcast), apparently for jawing with Robin Lopez, except it sure didn’t look like he did much jawing. Maybe this will be yet another one to be rescinded? If it is indeed his 13th, and it’s not rescinded, then he’s suspended Friday in Sacramento. He’s had so many rescinded, it seems like he’s been one tech away from getting suspended for about two months.
- Late in the first half, the Thunder really took control for the first time, thanks mostly to defense. OKC clamped down with a coupe of strips and Perkins and Ibaka sealing off drives into the paint and getting blocks. It could easily be argued that the Thunder would be the best defensive team in the league if every player consistently played up to or near his potential as an individual and team defender. Consistent defensive focus would make Oklahoma City pretty tough to beat in the playoffs.
- Durant getting into the paint was the Thunder’s only real offense in the early going of the second half. Against the Clippers, KD wasn’t able to get it going just by driving to the rim. But he was in Phoenix, and that’s what he should do when not a whole lot else is working. And when he wasn’t getting inside and scoring himself, he was making a smart pass, like an and-one producing dump-off to Perkins down low.
- Harden celebrated his entrance into the second half with a 3-point play. Again, whenever you put in Harden and/or Collison…
- Steve Nash with a technical foul, complaining to the referees. I thought that must be pretty rare until I looked it up. The technical Wednesday was his fifth of the season. Good enough for sixth most among point guards in the league.
- Derek Fisher hit a jumper with his foot on the 3-point line at the third quarter buzzer. He’s going to hit a big shot or two before the playoffs are done, no matter what happens. I don’t think it’s a given that he gets a lot of minutes once the playoffs start and rotations might shorten, especially if the Thunder play the few teams that can throw waves of fast guards at you. But he needs to hit his shots, whether he plays six minutes or 16.
- Oh, wait. Fisher went 1-7. If he’s going to shoot like that in the playoffs, then that one had better be a really, really big shot.
- When Harden found Durant on a break for a ferocious one-handed baseline slam, it felt like the Thunder were going to finish things off. OKC was up 12 points at that point. On TV, it felt like the Phoenix crowd felt the same way. Murmurs followed the “OOOOHHHHH” reaction to KD’s dunk.
- Harden picked up a nice invisible assist to Collison as well, really putting every tool in his arsenal on display. He can create offense for any other player on the floor.
Next up: Friday at Sacramento.