It wasn’t Kevin Durant that beat the Dallas Mavericks yesterday with backbreaking buckets that sent the Oklahoma City Thunder on to the next round of the playoffs. It wasn’t Russell Westbrook that swept the defending champions in their own arena and broke down their defense with dribble penetration and facilitation. It was James Harden and his epic beard. Despite a monumental effort from Dirk Nowitzki (and a hip injury to Kendrick Perkins), the Thunder rallied from a 13-point deficit to start the fourth quarter as James Harden led the way to a 103-97 victory, ending the Mavericks’ title defense in a convincing sweep.
Harden finished with an all-around stellar stat line of 29 points, five rebounds, five assists, three steals and one block coming off the bench, but his game management, his numerous drives to the rim and his ability to find the open man off penetration won Game 4 for OKC. The Mavericks couldn’t stay in front of him when he attacked the basket, including a two-handed monster dunk. They couldn’t defend him when he hit shots from the outside. And when they were able to keep Harden from getting to the rim, they couldn’t close out on the wide open shooters he freed up up by drawing in the defense. Kevin Durant had 24 points and 11 rebounds on the night, but the hero of the night was Harden (and his beard). When I wrote about how dangerous the Oklahoma City Thunder are, I stressed that James Harden was the centerpiece: Durant and Russell Westbrook are clearly the team’s superstars, but Harden is the glue that holds them together and makes the Thunder such an incredibly tough playoff team. His dominant Game 4 performance was the perfect illustration of that. When James Harden gets going offensively, the Thunder are a legitimate title contender.
When the Thunder struggled the most this season, James Harden was not as involved on offense. But last night, Harden was actually running OKC’s half court offense, even with Russell Westbrook and Derek Fisher on the floor. Harden became the team’s quarterback and he didn’t disappoint in that leadership role. The Thunder are most vulnerable when their offense is stagnant, which usually translates into Westbrook and Durant jacking up 3-pointers and tough jump shots. Harden is a highly intelligent basketball player that reminds his team they can attack the rim, which then frees up the jump shots OKC’s superstars love so much. After watching a normally explosive Thunder offense stall for a few games during the regular season when their outside shots weren’t falling, it was a relief to see James Harden continuously get the ball late in the fourth with the game on the line so he could either score or facilitate to the Durantula. And while getting the sweep was good for the Thunder to send a message to rest of the Western Conference, it was also extremely helpful for Kendrick Perkins, who will benefit from additional time to rest and recover from his hip injury. With Perkins out, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison also benefitted from the chance to build playoff experience by guarding a superstar in a close-game situation. If Perkins gets healthy in time for round 2 against either the Lakers or the Nuggets, watch out for this team. They’re nearly impossible to beat between Durant, Westbrook and Harden.
Jason Terry had a rough shooting night, but Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd kept the Mavs in the game and were on fire in the third quarter that gave the home team a 13-point advantage heading into the final quarter. Nowtizki finished with 34 while Kidd hit four 3-pointers and chipped in 16 points of his own. From Dallas’ perspective, this sweep was a pretty appropriate finish to an uninspiring year for the reigning NBA champions. Dirk Nowitzki and company were so elated and felt so accomplished after finally winning it all that they never really recovered from that championship hangover and by the time the realized they wanted to win another one, it was too late. Not resigning Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson definitely hurt them, but a lackluster year might be worth it if Mark Cuban can convince Deron Williams to come on down to Texas next year. Unfortunately for Dallas, if they don’t get Deron Williams while still managing to hang on to Jason Terry, they’ll be stuck with too much age and not enough weapons to help Dirk out.