The game clock ticked mercilessly, trickling below 45 seconds as the sold out crowd, which had turned the arena into a sea of white in support of the home team, stood and chanted in unison, “DE-FENSE.”
A tenuous two-point lead was all the cushion the road team had as the ball-handler begun barking instructions, directing traffic while the shot clock neared 10 seconds. A double team came but backed off. Suddenly, the fate of a pivotal Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals would be determined by a one-on-one matchup — a sixth man versus a rookie.
And James Harden delivered, nailing a step-back 3-pointer against San Antonio forward Kawhi Leonard that all but iced the game with 28.8 seconds remaining.
It will go down as Harden's last moment of brilliance in Thunder blue, an indelible play that propelled Oklahoma City to its first Finals appearance and illustrated the impact the lefty could have as the lead man in crunch time.
Nearly five months later, the Thunder returns to the AT&T Center to open the 2012-13 NBA season. There isn't a more fitting venue for OKC to begin a year that, like it or not, will now be a referendum on Harden's trade to Houston.
Five days after the Thunder swapped Harden and others for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and three draft picks, Thursday's opener will begin to provide some answers to how the Thunder adapts to life without its ex-spark plug. But anything short of a championship inevitably will be met by one crucial question: what if the Thunder had kept Harden? It's the same singular question suffering Boston fans were forced to ponder when the Celtics surprisingly broke up its band by sending Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder two years ago.
A team that five days ago was about to embark on a season with strong chemistry and only small concerns now, whether fair or not, will be judged by how well it can cope with how a business decision broke up a good thing. The team, of course, is trying to leave the past in the past.
“We don't go into each day saying, ‘OK, we didn't do well today. We wish we had James. Or we did well today, we don't need James,'” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “No. That's neither here nor there. We're focused on who we have, and who we have is really good.”
Yeah, remember them?
Seemingly lost in Saturday's six-player swap are the talents of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Most analysts agree that the Thunder took a step back following the trade. But very few, if any, seem to consider the development of Durant and Westbrook, as well as a rapidly evolving Serge Ibaka, when evaluating OKC.
Durant and Westbrook are both coming off their best individual seasons to date and recently spent the preseason showing even more growth in their games and in their leadership ability. Few teams possess two top-10 players, and there isn't another club that has a pair like Durant (24) and Westbrook (23) who have yet to reach their primes.
Those facts are the reason the folks at Thunder headquarters widely believe, both publicly and privately, that there is plenty left in the cupboard to remain on a championship quest this season.
“I'm very confident in the group, and I believe in the group and I'm excited to coach the group,” Brooks said. “I'm not worried about what people are saying, whether we're good or we're bad, or the trade's this or the trade's that. That's behind us. We've moved on. James was good for us. But he's no longer here. We've got guys here that are committed. They're excited to be here, they want to be here and we're going to make the best out of all of them.”
Many fans assumed the Thunder would make a one-year run at the title with Harden this year and, if need be, figure out the finances later. It was an assumption that failed to take into account two things: how Harden would have performed in the face of an unstable future, and whether he would have simply bolted for a better opportunity at the end of the year. Both would have been risky propositions for the Thunder only to make a run that still wouldn't be guaranteed to end in a championship.
When it became clear that Harden's asking price would be too much, the Thunder did something it never wanted to do, and that was part ways. The deal ultimately kept the Thunder in contention this year while also positioning the franchise to remain relevant, thanks to the acquisition of additional assets, for the foreseeable future.
Whether any of it matters at season's end will depend on what city this year's championship parade is in.
If it's not running down Reno Ave., this season will forever be the one that gets second-guessed.