James Harden had an open 16-foot jump shot late in the fourth quarter Tuesday, and it looked like he wanted to be anywhere else but holding the basketball.
Turns out he was holding the basketball. Turns out he shot it, too.
And as it turns out, that exacta was not a winning combination. The shot missed and the Thunder lost again, this one a 104-98 kidney punch that leaves Oklahoma City just a game away from elimination down 3-1 to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
When the Thunder lose, the go-to response is to pile on guard Russell Westbrook. But after Game 4, save some room for Harden. There’s plenty of blame to go around after the Thunder lost a double-digit lead for the second time in two games to Miami.
Westbrook was sensational from beginning to end in Game 4, yet Harden hasn’t taken his talents to South Beach. Westbrook didn’t just silence his critics with a prose-worthy game, he answered them. Too bad that very well could be forgotten now that the Thunder have dropped a second game in a row in Miami.
Westbrook took it to the Heat for 43 points, a playoff high. Then he took to the podium afterward, saying that nothing anyone in the media writes or broadcasts, breathes or debates makes a difference to him. Doesn’t make him happy. Doesn’t make him sad.
But Tuesday, he played like he was mad. Westbrook was flawless until he fouled Mario Chalmers unnecessarily with 13.8 seconds left, the Thunder down three and the shot clock close to expiring. But OKC lost the game way before Westbrook’s foul. He was so good, no one possibly could point the finger at him. A 20-of-32 shooting effort, seven rebounds and five assists get Westbrook a pass from criticism. More important, he did it when no one else seemed to be interested.
And he did it in a series where he’s been questioned for shooting too much, shooting more than Durant and not altering his style in times of crisis. He scored 11 points in a row in a fourth-quarter stretch when the Thunder were dissolving. Durant didn’t show himself, and no one but Westbrook looked like they wanted to be involved.
Which brings us to Harden. He’s the new face of blame for the Thunder these days.
Westbrook and Durant scored the final 32 points for the Thunder. The rest of the team went 0 for 7 in that same span, encapsulated by Harden’s fearful shot that he didn’t want to take, then didn’t make, when the Thunder were down 99-94 with 2:08 to play.
Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said he loved Harden’s effort. OK, give him an “A” for effort. But what about the rest of his game? What about his confidence? Grading on a curve, Harden probably gets by when compared to the rest of his bench mates, but after what he’s done all year, “Incomplete” sums it up better.
Beloved by all in OKC for his amazing season, the Sixth Man of the Year, not Westbrook, was a key reason for the loss Tuesday.
Hard to believe Harden could have topped a dreadful 2 of 10 shooting performance in 34 minutes in Game 3, but he sure gave it a try. Yes, he had 10 rebounds, but in 37 minutes Harden once again went 2 for 10 for just eight points. He also had four turnovers and five fouls. He guarded LeBron James for a good stretch of the game, and maybe that was the reason he was lost in space offensively. James scored 26 points, had 12 assists and just missed a triple-double with nine rebounds.
Heat coach Eric Spoelstra defended Harden after the game better than Harden defended during the game, saying the Heat players respect him and that all Harden did was miss some open looks he normally makes.
Yes, that’s true, but Harden’s game goes beyond the box score. It’s between the eyes now.
For the first time in the playoffs, and maybe this season, he looked like he didn’t want to be out there. He wasn’t alone, either. Only Durant and Westbrook scored in double figures, and if not for Westbrook’s performance, it looked like the Thunder would have been embarrassed.
But it’s Harden, not Nick Collison or Serge Ibaka or even Thabo Sefolosha, who is expected to make a major contribution. Harden is the third of the OKC Big 3. When he doesn’t show, everyone wants to know why.
And right now, there are a lot of eyes on him.
Undoubtedly, Durant and Westbrook will come out Thursday and try to make a point in Game 5 as the Thunder try to stay alive. The question is, will Harden make one, too?