James Harden caught a pass on the left wing, jabbed left, dropped his head and put the ball on the floor. In two dribbles, he had slithered his way a step inside the painted area, where he stopped, rose and hung in the air, gliding right while releasing a tough, tough, left-handed floater.
Despite Thabo Sefolosha's best defensive efforts, the ball rattled in, serving as a surprising game-tying bucket with just 4:54 left to play.
Houston, at that moment, was riding high, giving the Thunder all it could handle at home and playing with a dangerous nothing-to-lose attitude. The game was in peril, and the pesky Rockets wouldn't go away.
“It's a five-minute game,” said Kendrick Perkins. “You just got to grind it out. This is the moment you live for. You don't really want to play in the playoffs playing blowouts. You want to live for it. This is going to determine who got the guts or not.”
These, remember, also are the moments in which many assumed the Thunder would miss its former sixth man.
But in its first bout with crunch time playoff basketball in the post-Harden era, the Thunder managed just fine without him, holding on for a 105-102 victory in Game 2 on Wednesday night inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Oklahoma City's offense in the final five minutes was fantastic, finally showing signs of deserting overused isolations and instead relying on designed sets, excellent ball movement and superb ball security. It led to multiple scorers and a guessing game by the Rockets defense.
“I think all season long we've been doing a great job of closing out big games and trying to prepare ourselves for moments like this,” said Russell Westbrook. “And I thought tonight we all stuck together.”
Though the nail-biter might have churned stomachs throughout the state, it perhaps was precisely what the Thunder needed.
Oklahoma City had just eight games decided by three points or less in the regular season. The Thunder went 3-5 in those games.
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