After squandering their opportunity in Game 4, the Oklahoma City Thunder returned to the Chesapeake Energy Arena with the chance to close out their best-of-seven series with the Houston Rockets Wednesday night.
Both clubs were playing without their starting point guards (Russell Westbrook, torn meniscus, for OKC; and Jeremy Lin, bruised chest, for Houston), but Kevin Durant and James Harden certainly didn't disappoint. Durant led all scorers with 36 points, while Harden poured in 31.
But that's not to say that each All-Star had a similar impact on the game.
Durant was reduced to the role of a volume scorer, one whose decibel level went silent over the final 12 minutes of action:
The three-time scoring champion tried to balance both scoring and distributing duties, dishing out a game-high seven assists, but he misfired on seven of his eight three-pointers.
Harden, on the other hand, was nothing short of spectacular in Houston's 107-100 Game 5 victory:
With Lin missing in action and Harden's stand-in backcourt mates Patrick Beverley and Aaron Brooks shooting a combined 9-of-22 from the field, the bearded baller resisted the temptation to fire at will. In doing so, he allowed Houston to become an offensive machine hitting on all cylinders:
Unable to account for Houston's horde of scorers, Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks opted to force Omer Asik, a career 52.7 percent foul shooter, to beat his club from the free-throw line. After Serge Ibaka's dunk trimmed the Houston lead to 93-85 with 5:38 left in regulation, Asik was fouled on the next six Houston possessions.
But the big man converted eight of his 12 attempts, helping to build his 21-point night. With Durant and Co. struggling to find even remotely similar success on the other end, the Thunder are now forced to head back to Houston for Game 6 on Friday night.
Brooks' strategy, while perhaps logical, may have left some lingering doubts about his team's ability to tighten its defensive grip in clutch situations:
To say that this series has been an eye-opener is an understatement.
The top-seeded Thunder are the defending Western Conference champions, while the eighth-seeded Rockets are the youngest team in the playoffs. Even with Westbrook's playoff-ending injury, the Thunder held a commanding 3-0 series lead—a deficit that no NBA team has ever been able to overcome.
The supporting cast will be needed for both sides, but so too will a heroic effort from either Harden or Durant.
Durant previously filled the alpha male role in OKC, with Harden serving as the consummate team player. The first-time All-Star sacrificed statistics and notoriety in pursuit of a larger goal: an NBA championship.
Those days are long gone now. Harden unleashed an offensive fury on the rest of the league this season, not unlike his masterful performance in Game 5.
And Harden's past supporting role leaves him perhaps better equipped now to guide Houston past his former ball club.
Harden's been a creator for others; he knows how to walk the fine line between scorer and distributor. It's a balance Durant's now forced to learn on the fly—never an enviable task at this time of year.
Oklahoma City had the more dominant regular season, but that success was built largely around Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook imposing their will on their opponents, with a few Kevin Martin eruptions mixed into the equation.
Houston, though, has a horde of potential scoring threats and an All-Star leader who won't hesitate to maximize their effectiveness.
It's too early to predict an upset here, but it's still too early to predict anything in this series. I'm not sure how many people guessed the Rockets would still be alive at this point, as they are just 48 minutes away from turning this into a winner-take-all Game 7.
It's safe to say that Harden was one of those people, though. And that belief, both in himself and in his teammates, could have Houston on the brink of making history.