Who was this bearded man?
He wore No. 13 and, at times, he looked like the best player in the gym Wednesday night. When the ball was in his hands, the defense had no idea how to stop him. In the pick-and-roll, he carved up the competition and created plays for himself and others with the greatest of ease. He drove to the basket, and finished at the rim, and stopped and popped, and served up one sweet pass after another to his teammates.
He did all of this over and over and over again.
“He really took his game to another level,” marveled Kevin Durant.
This is how we will remember James Harden closing the 2010-11 season. The second-year Thunder guard saved his best for last in Oklahoma City's 100-96 loss to Dallas in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. Now, the memory of his performance will leave Thunder fans salivating until October, or whenever it is that the next NBA season might begin.
Harden didn't just raise the bar for himself. He punted it to a different planet.
In 34 minutes off the bench, Harden scored 23 points on 7-of-11 shooting while dishing out six assists, pulling down five rebounds and turning it over only twice. Harden marched to the free throw line a game-high 10 times, making eight.
“He was confident,” Durant said. “He knew what he had to do for us to win. He had to come off the bench and give us a spark and that's what he did.”
Never before have we seen Harden do what he did Wednesday. When the Thunder's offense needed a spark, as it did throughout the postseason, Harden essentially became a point-forward. When the Mavs made a second-half push, turning a three-point halftime deficit into a three-point advantage 7 1/2 minutes into the third quarter, the Thunder responded by playing small ball. And Harden was so good he gave the Thunder no choice but to put the ball in his hands to initiate the offense despite point guards Russell Westbrook and Eric Maynor both being deployed in the lineup.
Harden then hit Durant on a drive and dish for a 3-ball that tied it. He then secured a rebound and went coast-to-coast and earned a trip to the stripe. Fifty seconds later, he penetrated toward the paint before pulling up and feeding Westbrook on a beautiful look-away pass for a layup.
The Thunder regained a six-point lead. And the pressure Harden applied from that point-forward position completely puzzled the Mavs. Unlike Game 4, when Dallas sent the house at Durant and Westbrook the moment Harden fouled out with just less than five minutes left to play, the Mavs couldn't contain the Thunder when it had its third best scorer and perhaps its best playmaker sharing the court with its two All-Stars.