SAN ANTONIO – The shot clock ticked down Monday night, and everyone from Rumble to Clay Bennett to the couple sitting in Section 224 wearing Russell Westbrook-replica fishing lure shirts and lens less frames had to be petrified.
The Thunder, up 13 points with 4:40 left in a game that could shift the balance of power in the NBA, suddenly led by only two points, final minute, and that shot clock ticked down.
Manu Ginobili was drop-kicking in baskets, and Tim Duncan looked sprightly again and Bexar County smelled an epic Spurs comeback.
And the clock kept ticking, 35, 34, 33. Time to hurry. Except James Harden never hurries. He has become an NBA star by going against time; Harden sometimes plays in slow motion. Most young players have to learn to speed up to the pace of the game. Harden slows down the game to his liking.
Which is why with the clock still ticking, 32, 31, 30, Harden took his time. With demonic defender Kawhi Leonard on his case, Harden dribbled inside the 3-point arc, then back out and launched a shot that could live long in Oklahoma City history.
Swish. A 3-pointer that drained the Riverwalk dry. The Thunder had a five-point lead with 28.8 seconds left and soon enough had a 108-103 victory in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals.
And now the West is there for the Thunder's taking. Beat the Spurs on Wednesday night back home in Oklahoma City, and the Thunder is headed for the NBA Finals.
“They're a hell of a basketball team,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who has coached four NBA champs for the Alamo City but might have just witnessed a torch passing. “I don't know what else to tell you. It's not like we're playing the Sisters of the Poor. These guys are hard to guard, talented, hungry, athletic.”
Harden called the capper the biggest shot of his career. No duh, though the 4-point play he produced with 5:17 left was big, too. That gave the Thunder a 101-88 lead and should have slain the Spurs right then and there.
But the Spurs didn't get to their regal status by going softly into the night. They fought back with 10 straight points and made the Thunder sweat until the end.
Heck, even after Harden's last rainbow, San Antonio didn't quit. An inbounds disaster gave the Spurs one last chance, but Ginobili, a basketball twin of Harden if you look past race, hemisphere and a dozen years difference in age, bounced a 3-pointer off the rim in the waning seconds.
Of course, the Thunder had a chance to wither, too. The Spurs wiped out a 14-point deficit and took a six-point lead midway through the third quarter. This one could have gone blowout the other way.
But Kevin Durant stabilized things with a couple of baskets, then the Thunder started pulling away.
“There are times in this game where we could have folded,” Harden said. “But we … stick together and stuck with it. These guys have grown. We have all grown and come together, and that is what makes us so special.”
Well, that, and having all-stars Durant and Westbrook on the floor yet still finding comfort in placing the ball in Harden's hands with the season on the line.
Don't worry. The Thunder wanted to get the ball to Durant on the fateful play. Scotty Brooks isn't stupid. But the Spurs have defended Durant fiercely all series and did so down the stretch Monday night.
So Harden had to take the reins. He's capable, of course. Harden had 11 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter.
“I had to make a play,” Harden said. “I think Kawhi was playing very good defense on me, and I just had to make a shot. I just went back to my mechanics and shot the ball with confidence, and it went in.”
The ball went in, the air went out of the San Antonio coliseum and the fortunes of the NBA's Western Conference turned, maybe for a very long time.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.