A few seconds later, Durant hit the 3-pointer that gave Oklahoma City the lead for good in the Thunder's Game 4 win over the Lakers on Saturday. For the second time in two games, the Thunder out-executed the veteran Lakers in crunch time, and the moment with Harden was taken as evidence that Durant understands his last-shot responsibilities in a way that a certain MVP in South Beach never will.
Such criticism of LeBron James is unfair — what else is new? — but in the Thunder's run through the 2012 NBA playoffs, Durant has demonstrated a new way for a superstar to act. He is both selfish and unselfish in a way Celtics fans will recognize from their own Kevin Garnett.
The most obvious aspect of Durant's shot Saturday, and his bouncing winner in Game 1 of the Thunder's first-round series against the Mavericks, was that Durant was not double-teamed. He was not double-teamed because the Lakers and Mavericks could not afford to double-team him. Harden has been one of the league's best players in the playoffs. Russell Westbrook made several tough baskets to pull the Thunder into a tie in the final minutes, and even Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins have a knack for being in the right place for crucial, easy baskets. The Lakers could not leave anyone defensively without handing the Thunder an open, makeable shot.
James does not have that luxury. Dwyane Wade is playing hurt, Chris Bosh is sidelined and Mario Chalmers has been inconsistent. Given the choice between doubling James or leaving a slumping Shane Battier, a hobbling Mike Miller or just plain lost Joel Anthony, opponents will opt to devote an extra defender to James every time. In those cases, even James making the smart basketball play to find the open man plays directly into the hands of the defense.
Durant is freed of having to make the decision whether to shoot or pass by the presence of Harden, the team's top playmaker and decision-maker. On the decisive possession Saturday, Harden made the play without ever taking a dribble when he opted to hand over the ball to Durant. With that simple hand-off, Harden made a play as effectively as if he had broken down his defender off the dribble and assisted the game-winning layup.
Still, Harden and the Thunder had options if Durant somehow could not have gotten the ball. That much could not be said for the Lakers, who look limited to one possible play at the end of tight ball games: Give it to Kobe Bryant and get out of the way. That approach was an eyesore in Game 2, when Bryant missed his last five shots, and was just as predictable and easily guardable in Game 4, when Bryant shot 2-for-10 in the fourth quarter.
The most maddening part about Bryant's hero-ball is that it can work when it is set up the right way. The Celtics love to run isolations for Paul Pierce late in the clock, but they run a variety of motions to get him the ball. Pierce will handle the ball on a screen-and-roll with Garnett to try to draw a mismatch, or he will roll off a screen on the wing to catch a pass in triple-threat position about 18 feet (a manageable distance) from the hoop.
Most of the time down the stretch, Bryant's isolations feature no such creativity. The other four Lakers moved around on offense late in Saturday's game, trying to get the ball to Andrew Bynum on the block or Pau Gasol in the high post, while Bryant stood on the perimeter and watched. When the desired post-up was not there, the Lakers simply threw it out to Bryant, 27 feet from the hoop. He had a live dribble, but in that situation he was entirely in single-threat position. He was too far from the basket to shoot, and everyone knew there wasn't a brunette's chance in Hollywood that he would pass.
So Bryant dribbled and dribbled and dribbled before taking a tough fadeaway jumper against Durant, Harden or Thabo Sefolosha. He made a couple, but that did not change the fact that they were less than ideal shots. In contrast, even Durant's misses seem defensible depending on the situation.
Durant is quickly gaining a reputation for being clutch in these playoffs. As with any shot, Durant has had to make them, and for that his growing reputation is entirely deserved. But Durant's heroics are more than just making shots. When a team makes it easier on its star and the star makes it easier on himself, that star is set up to succeed. Durant and the Thunder have set Durant up for success throughout the playoffs. All he has had to do is make the plays.