Originally posted on Fox Sports Southwest  |  Last updated 5/6/12
DALLAS The Beard is intimidating. This is the only plausible explanation I can give for how easily Oklahoma City guard James Harden got to the rim Saturday. There is also this: He is really good like crazy good. This was the fourth quarter. These were the defending champs staring down being swept in the first round. This was the Mavericks trying to protect a 13-point lead. And there was Harden and his raggedy, almost-Amish beard driving it down their throats again and again. Harden driving jump shot. Harden driving jump shot. Harden driving lay-up. Harden assist on a Durant three and again erasing the last remnants of that Dallas lead. Harden driving jump shot. And then with 33 seconds remaining and Dallas trailing by three and needing a stop, Harden once again went screaming to the hole for a driving finger roll, sealing what ended up being a 103-97 Thunder victory. Driving was on the stat sheet so often you would think his name was Harden Driving, kind of like how comedian Bill Cosby used to joke that he thought his name growing up was Jesus Christ. "He was phenomenal in that fourth," Thunder forward Kevin Durant said. "His pick-and-roll game is unreal." Phenomenal and unreal usually get tossed around about KD or Russell Westbrook. That both words were used and used correctly about Harden is why this team has championship potential, and part of why they flipped the script on the Mavericks. A little less than a year ago, Oklahoma City left Dallas after being eliminated from the Western Conference finals in five games. So what changed in a year? "Coaching," Thunder coach Scotty Brooks joked. "Experience," Thunder guard Russell Westbrook said. "They have a certain look in their eye," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. It is simpler than that, really. The Thunder grew up. The Mavs gave up. And by gave up, I am talking about Dallas management. I have heard every explanation for why dismantling a world championship team was good business. It may be what Deron Williams decides this offseason will determine that question. It was awful basketball. It was also unfair to Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion, all of whom deserved a chance to really defend their title. All they got was older. Dirk is going to be 34 in June and does not have seasons to waste. Does re-signing Tyson Chandler guarantee a better result against Oklahoma City? I do not know. What I know for sure is, if Chandler had stayed, Harden would have ended up on his butt at least once in that fourth quarter. What I also know for sure is Harden would have kept coming. The dude is tough, and a proud American. I am thrilled he may be playing for Team USA in London. He is young and dynamic, and what he did on the pick and roll Saturday was sick. "Three years ago, James' pick-and-roll game was suspect," Brooks said, stumbling a little before settling on the word suspect. "But we challenged him every day in practice and he's improved, and that is how we have gotten better as a team." Brooks then went through a list of everything Harden can do. Score the basketball. Drain three-pointers. Get to his mid-range game. Be a "lay-up maker." Find teammates for easy buckets in the corner, in the post, rolling to the basket. When people talk about the Thunder growing up, there is no better example than Harden. He was good last year, but not THIS good. He is clearly the league's best sixth man. "James could start for most, if not all, teams in the league," Thunder guard Derek Fisher said. "He has relished his role as far as coming off the bench being a scorer. But it is his play-making ability, his ability to make plays for other people, that I think makes him really special. It is not just his scoring. He took a big step in the growth (department) for us tonight." And then Fisher delivered the truth: "Our success will lie in our ability to play as a team and not just depend on Kevin and Russell to carry the day." Harden is not their best player. He may or may not be their second-best player, depending on how Westbrook is playing. But he is what every team needs in order to win a championship. Harden is one of those guys capable of carrying the team in the fourth quarter, of scoring and helping everybody else score, of playing defense and taking over. Saturday, he scored 15 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter and dished out three assists. "Coach has a tremendous amount of confidence in (me) to just give (me) the ball the whole fourth quarter in a playoff game and just tell (me) to go out there and make plays," Harden said. "We've come a long way in trust, and that showed tonight." Harden did not actually say "me." He said "a player." It was just obvious because he was the player who Brooks trusted and gave the ball to in the fourth. The whole interview was weird. Maybe he does not like talking about himself. Maybe it was weird because Westbrook was standing right there the whole time. Whatever the reason, Harden was doing the slight lean through the entire interview, which lasted just under three minutes. He looked eager to escape from it the very second the first question was asked. Maybe it was because of the Metta World Peace question. It was the question I was trying to ask as he walked away, about facing World Peace after being knocked out by one of his elbows in their last meeting in L.A. This almost certainly sets up a rematch with the Lakers in Round 2 and with World Peace. Peace against The Beard. I doubt the Lakers will be intimidated. I also doubt they will beat Oklahoma City too young, too fast, too cohesive ... and too many of them.
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