SAN ANTONIO — The shot clock showed 12 seconds by the time the play had even begun.
As it ticked lower and dangerously lower inside the final minute, the team’s third option was stuck with the ball in his hands, forced to figure it out from the left wing.
Kevin Durant was being blanketed by Stephen Jackson on the other side of the court. Russell Westbrook was busy trying to free Durant with a screen away from the ball.
By the time the ball-handler looked up, it was go time. A 13-point, fourth-quarter lead already had been whittled to two. A bucket was needed in the worst way. This was the most pivotal possession of the season.
That’s when James Harden did it himself. He dribbled out of an approaching double team by Manu Ginobili. He stepped behind the 3-point line. He danced a bit with the ball to knock Kawhi Leonard off balance. He then rose and fired, burying a back-breaking 3-pointer to put the Thunder ahead by five and help OKC secure an eventual 108-103 win over San Antonio in Game 5 of the 2012 Western Conference Finals.
It’s a play that will forever live in Thunder lore and a shot that solidified Harden as a budding superstar.
Two years later, as the Thunder returns to the AT&T Center, the site of that fateful flick of the wrist, it faces the same situation with the series tied, 2-2. Yet Oklahoma City still hasn’t shaken the nagging perception that it remains championship material after trading its former sixth man.
But the Thunder long ago turned the page on Big Game James.
The only question entering Thursday night’s critical Game 5 is who from the Thunder will now step up and supply the performance Harden had two years ago to keep Oklahoma City’s championship quest on track?
While it’s undeniable that the Thunder saw a drop off in sheer talent following the trade of Harden to Houston prior to the 2012-13 season, OKC has since filled the gap with a powerful blend of young, eager and athletic role players, smart and skilled veterans and, of course, two additional years of experience for the team’s killer tandem of Westbrook and Durant.
It’s enough to believe the Thunder can steal one in San Antonio and keep this series on track to becoming a repeat of 2012, when the Thunder won four straight after dropping the first two games of the series.
“You have to have other guys chipping in, and whatever they do they have to do it consistently,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, declining to compare this roster to that 2012 roster. “We have guys that set great screens. We have guys that are ball-movers. And we have guys that can catch and shoot that don’t need the basketball in their hands a long time because they’re open. They can shoot it with great success. I think we’re good when we spread the ball around.”
The emergence of Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson alone might offset what the Thunder got in Harden. Ibaka in this series has proved to be more of an integral piece than many thought, and his mid-range shooting and shot-blocking has stumped the Spurs for years. Jackson, meanwhile, appears to be a sort of Harden lite against the Spurs. In the four-game regular season series with the Spurs, Jackson averaged 21.3 points, the most he produced against any team this year. He added 3.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists while shooting 67.9 percent and making eight of 11 3-pointers.