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.
Of course, Jackson’s got a bad wheel after rolling his right ankle early in Game 4, and Ibaka is still hobbled with a left calf injury. Both could be limited by their respective injuries.
Still, the Thunder has more weapons than ever with the additions of Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams, the two biggest pieces the Thunder received in the Harden package. Lamb can supply perimeter shooting and playmaking when given the opportunity, while Adams already has proved to be a pest on the inside against these Spurs with his defense and rebounding.
Then there’s Derek Fisher and Caron Butler, the catch-and-shoot guys Brooks referenced. Both have been streaky in the postseason, but they’ve been solid so far in this series with the Spurs.
Additionally, no one can argue that the best two players in this series are Westbrook and Durant. Westbrook went off for a historic performance in Game 4, joining Michael Jordan as the only player to ever record 40 points with 10 assists and five steals in a postseason game. And Durant appears to be finding his stride.
But set aside the names on the back of the jerseys. Consider the production of this year’s team compared to the 2012 squad.
Oklahoma City’s offense, which Harden helped most during his tenure, isn’t significantly worse in any category. The Thunder is now a better passing team, averaging 1.3 more assists than the 2012 postseason; it generates more free throws, attempting 2.2 more per game; and it has only a slightly lower offensive rating, producing 2.2 fewer points per 100 possessions.
The biggest dropoffs have been seen in the Thunder’s ball security, scoring off turnovers and 3-point shooting. OKC is averaging 3.5 more turnovers in this postseason, 3.1 fewer points off turnovers and shooting 2.6 percentage points worse from beyond the 3-point line.
Although the Thunder has been worse at protecting the paint, allowing six more points in that area, it has become significantly better at defending the 3-point line, where it has shaved 4.2 percent off opponents’ percentage on the same 20.2 attempts per game. OKC also is a much improved rebounding team, particularly on the offensive end. Overall, the Thunder is allowing the same 104.3 points per 100 possessions now as it did then, as well as a nearly identical opponent field-goal percentage, 44.1 percent then to 44 percent now.
But regardless of the revamped roster or how similar the results have been between 2012 and 2014, if the Thunder falls into a 3-2 series hole Thursday night, you can bank on the team’s critics bringing up their 2-year-old reason for what’s holding back Oklahoma City.
No longer having Big Game James.