James Harden caught a pass on the left wing, jabbed left, dropped his head and put the ball on the floor. In two dribbles, he had slithered his way a step inside the painted area, where he stopped, rose and hung in the air, gliding right while releasing a tough, tough, left-handed floater.
Despite Thabo Sefolosha's best defensive efforts, the ball rattled in, serving as a surprising game-tying bucket with just 4:54 left to play.
Houston, at that moment, was riding high, giving the Thunder all it could handle at home and playing with a dangerous nothing-to-lose attitude. The game was in peril, and the pesky Rockets wouldn't go away.
“It's a five-minute game,” said Kendrick Perkins. “You just got to grind it out. This is the moment you live for. You don't really want to play in the playoffs playing blowouts. You want to live for it. This is going to determine who got the guts or not.”
These, remember, also are the moments in which many assumed the Thunder would miss its former sixth man.
But in its first bout with crunch time playoff basketball in the post-Harden era, the Thunder managed just fine without him, holding on for a 105-102 victory in Game 2 on Wednesday night inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Oklahoma City's offense in the final five minutes was fantastic, finally showing signs of deserting overused isolations and instead relying on designed sets, excellent ball movement and superb ball security. It led to multiple scorers and a guessing game by the Rockets defense.
“I think all season long we've been doing a great job of closing out big games and trying to prepare ourselves for moments like this,” said Russell Westbrook. “And I thought tonight we all stuck together.”
Though the nail-biter might have churned stomachs throughout the state, it perhaps was precisely what the Thunder needed.
Oklahoma City had just eight games decided by three points or less in the regular season. The Thunder went 3-5 in those games.
Now, in spite of its sensational 60-win regular season, the Thunder, like it or not, is at the point where it must prove it can close out playoff games down the stretch without the wonderful playmaking abilities of Harden.
“We've been in a lot of close games, maybe not this year but you don't forget how you play,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “We have a lot of experience on our team even though our age is young…One of the things that (Thunder players) do is they play with a lot of composure for a young group…So it's only going to get better as time goes by.”
Harden's bounce-back performance didn't do anything to stain the memory of how he so often took control in spurts throughout the fourth quarter. He scored a game-high 36 points with 11 rebounds and six assists. Even after his game-tying bucket, he orchestrated Houston's offense to near perfection, drawing fouls, earning trips to the free throw line and drawing the defense before kicking out to wide open shooters.
Thanks to Harden, who split a pair of free throws and found Carlos Delfino for a 3-pointer, the Rockets took a 95-91 lead with 3:27 remaining.
The Thunder, though, continued to trust a revamped system that has been sprouting all season. In the face of a Rockets zone defense — a scheme the Thunder historically has struggled against — players passed and played together.
In those final five minutes, the Thunder went 4-for-7 from the field. OKC didn't have a single turnover. Five different players scored.
“We've been on both sides of those runs,” Brooks said. “And the only way you can do it is by sticking together. And I thought our guys did.”