The game clock ticked mercilessly, trickling below 45 seconds as the sold out crowd, which had turned the arena into a sea of white in support of the home team, stood and chanted in unison, “DE-FENSE.”
A tenuous two-point lead was all the cushion the road team had as the ball-handler begun barking instructions, directing traffic while the shot clock neared 10 seconds. A double team came but backed off. Suddenly, the fate of a pivotal Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals would be determined by a one-on-one matchup — a sixth man versus a rookie.
And James Harden delivered, nailing a step-back 3-pointer against San Antonio forward Kawhi Leonard that all but iced the game with 28.8 seconds remaining.
It will go down as Harden's last moment of brilliance in Thunder blue, an indelible play that propelled Oklahoma City to its first Finals appearance and illustrated the impact the lefty could have as the lead man in crunch time.
Nearly five months later, the Thunder returns to the AT&T Center to open the 2012-13 NBA season. There isn't a more fitting venue for OKC to begin a year that, like it or not, will now be a referendum on Harden's trade to Houston.
Five days after the Thunder swapped Harden and others for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and three draft picks, Thursday's opener will begin to provide some answers to how the Thunder adapts to life without its ex-spark plug. But anything short of a championship inevitably will be met by one crucial question: what if the Thunder had kept Harden? It's the same singular question suffering Boston fans were forced to ponder when the Celtics surprisingly broke up its band by sending Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder two years ago.
A team that five days ago was about to embark on a season with strong chemistry and only small concerns now, whether fair or not, will be judged by how well it can cope with how a business decision broke up a good thing. The team, of course, is trying to leave the past in the past.
“We don't go into each day saying, ‘OK, we didn't do well today. We wish we had James. Or we did well today, we don't need James,'” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “No. That's neither here nor there. We're focused on who we have, and who we have is really good.”
Yeah, remember them?
Seemingly lost in Saturday's six-player swap are the talents of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Most analysts agree that the Thunder took a step back following the trade. But very few, if any, seem to consider the development of Durant and Westbrook, as well as a rapidly evolving Serge Ibaka, when evaluating OKC.