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.”