By Darnell Mayberry, Staff Writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
SAN ANTONIO — The demise of the Thunder on Sunday night started the moment it stopped going to its bread and butter, better known by many as the bearded one.
When the Thunder's offense got stagnant and the ball stopped moving in the fourth quarter, it was largely a byproduct of James Harden, the team's best playmaker, not having the ball in his hands.
The end result was a nine-point, fourth-quarter lead evaporating against San Antonio before the Thunder walked out of the AT&T Center with a 101-98 loss in Game 1.
“Tomorrow night,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Monday, “we'll do a better job.”
It'd be hard for the Thunder not to.
In the final 12 minutes, Harden initiated and orchestrated just three plays in the halfcourt. The first two came in the first 1 minute, 14 seconds of the fourth quarter. The last one was drawn up for Harden with 1:11 remaining.
During that 9 minute, 35 second gap, the Thunder went from being up seven points to down seven points.
“I think this entire postseason, even in the regular season, the fourth quarter, the majority of the time, I have the ball in my hands and making plays,” Harden said. “Hopefully, we'll get back to that.”
The Thunder's greatest issue in Game 1 was defense, not offense. Oklahoma City allowed San Antonio to shoot 12-for-16 from the field and net 39 fourth-quarter points, the most the Thunder has allowed in any fourth quarter this season.
But after entering the final period with a 71-62 lead, the Thunder could have withstood even a sizzling Spurs squad down the stretch had it gotten higher-quality shots.
Harden typically has been the guy who has created them. On Sunday, however, he was reduced to a decoy, a spot-up shooter and a screen-setter while the Thunder force-fed the ball to Kevin Durant.
“He had it going,” Harden said of Durant. “He was making plays not only for himself but other players on the court. It was just one of those nights where we went through Kevin, our leading scorer.”
Durant scored a game-high 27 points on 8-of-19 shooting and got to the free throw line six times in the fourth quarter. But with Spurs forward Stephen Jackson blanketing Durant, the Thunder's offense bogged down tremendously while trying to make a clean entry pass to its scoring leader.
“We put the pressure on Kevin too much,” Harden said. “Obviously, he's big in those situations but our other guys have to step up and make plays as well. We just got to watch film and learn from it and be better at it.”
Said Durant: “I just tried to get the ball in my hands and make a play. The Spurs do a good job of knowing your plays and trying to take you out of them. But we play random basketball, drive-and-kick basketball. So we just tried to make plays.”
Durant said the start of the fourth quarter generally is when Harden gets it going and provides his most significant spark. Yet Harden wasn't given the chance to Sunday.
The Thunder started the fourth quarter by allowing Harden to orchestrate the offense on its first two possessions. Harden used the first set, a ball screen by Nick Collison, to knock down a jump shot. On the second possession, Harden attacked off another ball screen by Collison but was whistled for a charging foul when Spurs forward Tiago Splitter slid his feet to get into position. The Thunder held a 73-66 lead at that point, but by the time Harden got his next shot to run the offense OKC trailed 96-89.
It's possible Brooks lost a bit of trust in Harden after he corralled a defensive rebound, raced the other way and picked up another charging violation while trying to convert a layup with 8:55 remaining.
“He had two charges and he had tough looks in the game,” Brooks said. “But they did a great job on him. They really collapsed his lanes and he didn't get a lot of opportunities to take it to the basket.”
Harden certainly struggled. He had eight points on 3-of-12 shooting through three quarters. But Harden also has proved himself capable of heating up in a hurry, as evidenced by his fourth quarter in the closeout Game 4 against Dallas, when he scored or assisted on 24 of the team's final 35 points.
“I think (Sunday) night we were kind of all over the place in the fourth quarter,” Harden said.
The Thunder can't afford similar chaos Tuesday night and risk going down 2-0. How Harden performs will go a long way in determining the outcome of Game 2. In six games since the start of the Lakers series, Harden has made just 26-of-70 shots, a mere 37 percent.
“There's going to be times in every series or every game that you're going to have a guy struggle here or there,” Brooks said. “James has been good for us all year, and we believe in him … He's going to make some shots. He made some shots at the end (Sunday). Hopefully that gives him some confidence going into Tuesday night's game.”