Posted May 20 2011 6:42AM
DALLAS -- If a photographer were taking a snapshot of the Thunder's future, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would be front and center, grinning for the camera.
James Harden would probably be just outside the frame.
If a sculptor were molding and shaping everything the Thunder hope and plan to become in the coming NBA seasons, it would be Westbrook and Durant up on the pedestal.
And Harden would be the pedestal.
So in a game where the Thunder needed something to stand on to begin making a statement in the Western Conference finals, it was Harden who provided the support.
He ran, he scored, he attacked the basket on drives, he pulled up to stick in jumpers.
Harden scored 23 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dealt four assists to lead an Oklahoma City bench surge that eventually overwhelmed Dallas 106-100.
"Just playin'," Harden said. "Just playin'."
Durant and Westbrook. Westbrook and Durant.
It may take two to tango. But it usually takes more than just a pair of stars to dance all the way to a championship.
For all the pair of precociously-talented 22-year-old headliners have done to lift the Thunder so high so soon, it could eventually be all the things the 21-year-old Harden can do that enables them to go so far for so long.
"James has been improving ever since we drafted him," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "(Assistant) coach (Rex) Kalamian does a great job of really challenging him to get better every day and we have a lot of confidence in James. I personally do, our staff does.
"He made plays. He made big basketball plays. James is not just a spot-up shooter. He is a penetrator. He is a playmaker and I thought he did it all tonight."
The second-year lefty out of Arizona State had his role on the team grow significantly when the Thunder shipped out Jeff Green at the February trade deadline in order to get center Kendrick Perkins from Boston. The move meant that Harden moved up in the pecking order in terms of opportunity and responsibility."
"I was ready for whatever they wanted me to do," Harden said.
In Game 2, that meant acting like the fuse on the end of a stick of dynamite as he came off the bench and took charge. After Dallas' Jason Terry lit up OKC for 24 points in the opener of the series, the goal was to go right at him this time around, to ram the game right down Terry's throat and give him something to worry about at the other end.
"It was just moving the ball, making the passes and taking advantage of the opportunities when they came around," said Harden, whose game is far more aggressive than his talking.
With Harden leading the way, the Thunder bench outscored the Mavs' bench 50-29 and made virtually all of the decisive plays down the stretch. The bench, in fact, played so well that Brooks never put the starting point guard Westbrook back into the game in the fourth quarter, allowing Eric Maynor and Harden to close out the game with fellow reserves Nick Collison and Daequan Cook on the floor with Durant.
"Sticking with Eric over Russell, I've done it a few times this year," Brooks said. "It doesn't happen often. He's our starting point guard. But we weren't getting a lot of things done...and I stayed with Eric.
"That's always a decision for the last six or so minutes...But the way the game was being played, we were increasing the lead. We were making shots. I didn't want to mess with the rhythm."
Maynor could feel the rhythm, Collison and Cook and Durant knew all the steps, but it was Harden who provided the beat, the drive, the sheer force of his will that kept the Thunder attacking the Mavs back on their heels all night.
Harden closed out the third quarter by rising up to nail one of his four 3-pointers, got fouled by Terry and completed a four-point play to push OKC in front 77-76. Then he opened the fourth by losing Terry and knocking down another 3-pointer and the Thunder never surrendered the lead. OKC used a 14-5 burst that Harden closed out by hitting a tough jumper at the foul line to take a 10-point lead with just over three minutes to play.
"That's what this team does. That's what this team is about," said Perkins. "Everybody knows that we have two of the best young players in the game in Kevin and Russell. What they miss sometimes are the other guys."
Until James Harden comes from somewhere outside the picture frame and brings everything into focus.
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