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.
“In college, that's all I was was a playmaker,” Harden said. “I really didn't have a lot of open 3s. I transformed my game early my first year here. But this year, they just had more confidence in putting the ball in my hands to make plays. So that's something I tried to do.”
Seeing the Thunder's offense shift into high gear with Harden at the wheel will naturally leave fans longing for more — especially since the offense has a tendency to bog down when Westbrook and Durant are on the court together without a legitimate third scoring option. Next season, Harden will be called upon to fill that void and provide more balance.
Here comes those heightened expectations.
“That's what we're going to need for him,” Durant said. “He's going to be an important piece. People are going to expect him — that's a big word, expect him — to do big things next year. He knows that. I'm sure he's going to take that challenge on head on and try to come back a better player.”
Harden, who averaged 14.4 points on 53.5 percent shooting along with six rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.2 steals in the conference final, sounds more than comfortable and confident in assuming added responsibility. When asked how much better he can be, Harden responded “A lot better.”
By all accounts, we're only seeing the beginning. Harden couldn't take on more offensively until the deadline-day deal that sent Jeff Green to Boston for Kendrick Perkins. Almost immediately, Harden transformed into one of the league's best sixth men, averaging 15.8 points on 46.5 percent shooting after the All-Star break compared to just 10.3 points on 41.3 percent before it.
“James knows that he had to get better as a player as the season went along and he did,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “I thought the trade really helped him feel more confident that he knows that we needed to count on him night in and night out, and he was very consistent in the second half of the season.”
Whenever the Thunder is allowed to reconvene for the 2011-12 season, the bearded man promised to return the same as we last saw him.
“Most likely I will,” Harden said when asked if he'll keep his bushy beard. “I don't think it's going anywhere anytime soon.”