If there was any question about how valuable James Harden is to the Thunder, look no further than what transpired Sunday.
With its sixth man stuck in the visitor's locker room inside Staples Center nursing a concussion, the Thunder squander a 17-point, fourth-quarter lead and suffered an embarrassing 114-106 double-overtime loss at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers.
In the fourth quarter, Oklahoma City's offense basically became a predictable horror picture, with the final 15 set plays in regulation being run for Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook.
The team's two All-Stars essentially took turns jacking up jump shots in every way possible: out of pick-and-rolls, off screens and, worst of all, out of ill-timed and ill-advised isolations.
No Harden meant no easy buckets.
Now, it's anyone's guess when the team's most dynamic playmaker will return.
But as the opening weekend of the playoffs nears, the Thunder can only hope Harden's symptoms subside soon. Sunday's game proved that with Harden, the Thunder has a championship-caliber, three-headed monster offensively that can be nearly impossible to stop, and without him, well, OKC could be on upset alert in round one.
That's the significance of one swing of the elbow by Metta World Peace.
Without Harden on Sunday, the Thunder scored 54 points in the 34 minutes that made up the second half and two overtimes. With Harden, the Thunder scored 52 points in the first 24 minutes.
Worse, when the Lakers made their push and tightened up the game, the Thunder made just 9-of-36 shots (25 percent) in the fourth quarter and overtimes. Durant had several shot rim out during that span, but neither Durant nor Westbrook made the adjustment in the face of mounting missed jump shots to get to the basket and force the issue.
“We were taking jump shots,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “You're not going to get an opportunity to get to the line when you take jump shots.”
The Thunder ranks second in the league in free throw attempts per game with a 26.5-average, just 0.2 behind first-placed Denver. But in the final 22 minutes, the Thunder attempted only eight.
The absence of Harden was a huge hit in that department. Harden's 9.1 free throws per 48 minutes rank him 11th in the league, while his 7.7 made free throws per 48 minutes rank him sixth.
Also missing was Harden's surgeon-like precision in the pick-and-roll. Gone was the Thunder's third dimension, which involves putting the ball in Harden's hands and allowing him to create plays for himself and others. Before the wicked elbow by World Peace, we saw Harden carve up the Lakers' defense in the first half — despite some stout defense by Lakers forward Matt Barnes — by operating beautifully with the help of ball screens. In just 13 minutes, Harden scored 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting while dishing out three assists.
Only recently has the Thunder began going to Harden late in game (although still not fully utilized), and OKC sorely needed Harden's craftiness in crunchtime Sunday.
Instead, the Thunder settled.
Unlike Harden, Durant and Westbrook appeared uncomfortable at best and confused at worst at how to create a quality shot out of pick-and-rolls. So they did what was easiest. They fired up jump shots … on nine of the final 11 possessions.
The Thunder called them good looks.
But as eight of this final nine hoists missed the mark, each one demonstrated the dire need for Harden to get the Thunder something better.