As breathtaking as the exploits of the Thunder's All-Star tandem were in Game 1, their spectacular scoring left a lingering feeling that a disaster had been avoided.
The Thunder escaped with a four-point win in the opening game of this series Sunday night, and everyone from Thunder coach Scott Brooks to the ball boys knew Oklahoma City could not possibly continue to receive such a dominant offensive attack from just two players. With that realization, it seemed an entire fan base turned its collective focus to one man.
The second-year shooting guard needed to contribute a scoring spark, and he did just that Wednesday night, pouring in 14 of his 18 points off the bench in the first half as the Thunder cruised to a wire-to-wire 106-89 Game 2 win over Denver.
And those bubbly vibes you're feeling from this victory don't just stem from the Thunder securing a 17-point blowout to take a 2-0 lead in the series as it now shifts to Denver for Games 3 and 4. Deep down, everyone, including Denver, now knows the Thunder is too much for the Nuggets to handle when its entire roster comes to play.
Unlike Game 1, when the Thunder had only three players in double-digit scoring, led by a combined 72-point effort from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City had a much more balanced attack in Game 2. Harden was one of five players in double figures, led by Durant's game-high 23 points. Westbrook scored 21, Serge Ibaka had 12 points and Nick Collison chipped in 10 points off the bench.
“It's probably our best game of the year in terms of moving the ball to different guys and guys making plays,” said Collison.
No contributor was more important than Harden.
While Durant and Westbrook combined to shoot 25 of 45 from the field Sunday, Harden went 1-for-5. He missed all four of his 3-point tries and got to the free throw line just four times. Harden had only five points in 26 minutes.
But while everyone inside Oklahoma City Arena seemingly wanted Harden benched for his poor performance, Brooks stuck with him because he saw a shooter who was having hard luck. All four of Harden's 3s, Brooks said, rolled around without dropping down.
“If two had gone in, he'd have 11 points and we'd have said he had a pretty good game,” Brooks said.
There was no denying Harden on Wednesday.
Harden worked his way to the foul line and manufactured points in transition. He went five-for-five from the free throw line in the first quarter alone and threw down a fast-break dunk off a Danilo Gallinari turnover to cap a 10-1 run that put the Thunder up 29-10 with 47.4 seconds left in the period.
After the Thunder took a 31-15 lead into the second quarter, Harden helped his team surge to a 12-2 spurt that put Oklahoma City ahead 43-17, its largest lead of the night. Harden hit two 3-pointers off assists from Collison and Eric Maynor and converted a technical foul free throw following a Nuggets defensive three-second violation.
Harden was clearly more effective playing with the second unit.
“They're looking for me to be much more aggressive with the basketball as a scorer,” Harden said of when he's in with the reserves. “When Kevin and Russell come back in, I have to just pick my spots on the offensive end.”
Harden's teammates didn't have to tell him anything after Game 1 other than keep shooting.
“The other night didn't really mean nothing,” Maynor said. “We knew tonight he'd show up and make shots. That's what he does on a daily basis.”
The dilemma is in figuring out how to get Harden to coexist better while flanking his All-Star teammates. Rather than being reduced to a spot-up shooter, it seems a key to the Thunder continuing to roll is in putting Harden in positions to be just as aggressive with Durant and Westbrook on the floor. But Harden said he will never force the action.
“That's not my game,” Harden said. “I'm not the type to be selfish. We have two All-Stars on the team, and I'm willing to play my role.”
On Wednesday, as Denver double-teamed Durant and Westbrook more frequently, Harden was able to get into a rhythm attacking as the defense focused its attention elsewhere.
Harden just took advantage.
“We got him the ball in places where he could just attack and go,” Collison said. “He's best when he can just attack, and he's able to do that when we can make the defense slide from one side to the other so he can have a lot more space.”