The Mavs tried zone. They tried man-to-man. They tried double-teaming. They tried blitzing Harden to the middle. Tried forcing him to the wing. Tried Delonte West guarding him. Tried Jason Kidd. Tried Jason Terry. Tried Jason from “Friday the 13th.”
Nothing worked. A star was born.
In Oklahoma, we've been watching Harden progress from promising rookie to court magician over his three seasons. But the Bearded One sometimes gets lost in the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook glare.
Not Saturday night. Not when the defending NBA champs were eliminated. Not when the Thunder swept the Dallas Mavericks with a stirring fourth-quarter rally.
Down 13 points with less than 10 minutes left in the game, the Thunder stormed back. In the final 91/2 minutes, Harden had 15 points and two assists, and the Thunder won going away, 103-97.
“I'd put that in my top five (performances) witnessing as a player,” said 34-year-old Nazr Mohammed. “James, he was a beast out there.”
The Baby Boomers made Dallas look old, which it is. They also showed America that the Thunder is more than a two-headed monster.
Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki, who a year ago led the Mavs to the NBA title, lamented the story of this series. Westbrook carried the Thunder in Games 1 and 2. Durant was spectacular in Game 3.
“Today, they just throw it to Harden and he goes off,” Nowitzki said. “If you want to be an elite team in this league right now, you have to have two or three guys that can go off.
“They just had more weapons than us. That was pretty clear.”
Harden repeatedly and methodically worked his way to the basket for lay-ins. In that fourth quarter, Harden made six of nine shots in those 9 1/2 minutes and all three of his foul shots.
“He beat us on individual drives, he beat us on the pick-and-roll, he beat us on double teams,” said Mav coach Rick Carlisle. “He got up a head of steam, and he was just great.
“We tried everything. We probably had five or six different coverages going on. We had different guys on him. We had a guard guarding their big man so we could switch it. But it was more about how good he was.”
The capper came after Dallas drew within 100-97 with 33 seconds left on two Nowitzki foul shots. Harden dribbled down the shot clock, with West guarding him, before attacking the basket with just five seconds left to shoot. Harden's teammates spread the floor magnificently, and when Harden feigned his way past West, no Mav was in position to challenge quickly enough.
Ballgame. Series. End of an era in Dallas, which will remake its roster, and perhaps the start of a championship run of its own for the Thunder.
“Scotty (Brooks) put the ball in my hands in the fourth quarter, and he told me to make plays,” Harden said. “So I was just trying to make plays.”
Harden's passing was just as good as his scoring. Three times in the period, Harden penetrated, the Mavericks collapsed on him and he fired a bullet pass to the wing for 3-points, the first by Daequan Cook and the latter two by Durant.
“They had a small lineup out there that's been bothering us,” Nowitzki said. “All they were doing was spread the floor with shooter in corner, shooter in the corner, shooter on the wing.
“If we sucked in too much, Durant hit two threes there on the right wing. If we stayed home, he (Harden) got to the basket. Gotta give them credit. He did his thing. Whatever we did, he made us pay.
Whatever we threw at him, he attacked accordingly.”
Courage, Nick Collison called it, and he was right. Harden is not scared. He's a lot like Westbrook; Harden doesn't wither in the bright lights.
This game showed that the Thunder can survive an off night from one of its superstars without the other superstar needing to go crazy.
Westbrook made just three of 12 shots and scored only 12 points. Durant hit those two huge fourth-quarter shots but still managed just 24 points.
No matter. The Bearded One took over. The Thunder moves on, with three stars and enough weapons to win it all.