DALLAS — James Harden was looking for Kevin Durant.
What he saw instead in the final seconds of the third quarter Thursday night was a shot clock running dangerously low. With Jason Terry backing off him ever so slightly, the Thunder shooting guard made a decision.
“I just tried to make a play,” Harden said.
He made a big one.
Harden not only stuck the 3-pointer but also converted a four-point play after he was fouled. It gave the Thunder a lead heading into the fourth quarter, a lead it never relinquished.
Thunder 106, Mavs 100.
After the opening game of the Western Conference Finals, it was clear that Kevin Durant needed a sidekick. The Thunder superstar had a monster outing, but Oklahoma City still lost.
Fast forward to Thursday night.
Durant scored a lot less points, but the Thunder scored a major victory.
Russell Westbrook was that yin to Durant's yang during the first three quarters, scoring 18 points on 7-of-15 shooting, but after a late third-quarter turnover, the point guard exchanged words with Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
He didn't return to the game.
No doubt part of that was because the Thunder B Team plus Durant was playing so well. Why mess up the rhythm? Why screw with a good thing?
But as much as anything, the decision to leave Westbrook on the bench was about Harden. He provided that second scoring option and take pressure off Durant.
Harden hit 4 of 5 shots and scored 10 points in the decisive fourth quarter.
He finished with 23 points, second only to Durant's 24 points, but he did a lot more than score. Harden came within one point of leading the Thunder in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals.
Read that again.
Harden had a huge performance in the biggest game of the season.
What he did throughout the game, but especially in the fourth quarter, is the kind of thing that does more than help Durant. It helps the whole darn team.
“No question,” Thunder reserve Daequan Cook said. “He gets to the basket, and he draws a lot of attention. That gives us an opportunity to swing ... or another player to get to the basket.
“When he's playing that way, it's hard to really guard us.”
Case in point — the Thunder shot a sizzling 64.7 percent in the fourth quarter.
“You got to think about it — when he's playing good, we win,” Cook said. “We win big.”
Durant said: “James Harden was great for us tonight. He knows he has to be good off that bench for us to win, and he did it tonight, came through and made some big plays.”
None was bigger than that four-point play at the end of the third quarter.
Only moments before, Westbrook had committed the turnover that earned him a seat on the bench. He fouled Jason Kidd on the play, leading to free throws and letting the Mavs take the lead.
The Dallas crowd was alive.
The Mavs were, too.
Then, Harden eyed the shot clock, decided to shoot and changed the game.
The shot silenced the crowd, but it also seemed to take something out of the Mavs, too.
“I just had confidence in my jump shot,” Harden said. “I had so much space I wanted to just rise up and shoot it and hold my follow through.”
He didn't just hit the shot.
He hit the Mavs square between the eyes.