He played 17 minutes, 13 seconds in the first half, a mere 28 seconds fewer than Westbrook and 29 fewer than Durant, who just about everyone agrees are pretty important to the Thunder's championship hopes.
The manufactured controversy of whether Harden should start for the rest of the NBA Finals is therefore a waste of hot air. Thunder coach Scotty Brooks is not likely to move the Sixth Man of the Year into the starting lineup in reaction to one loss, and doing so would be mostly a cosmetic change, anyway.
Short of sending out Harden with the first team, though, Brooks could make a subtle adjustment to the substitution pattern that could help Oklahoma City while placating those who are obsessed with the meaningless matter of who is on the floor for tip-off. A quicker hook for Kendrick Perkins or Serge Ibaka, leading to an earlier entrance for Harden, would get the job done.
Despite the Thunder's full stable of big men in Perkins, Ibaka and Nick Collison, the team has not done well in the first two games by going big. Perkins was such a liability against Miami's smaller lineups in Game 1 that he did not play a single second of the fourth quarter, and in Game 2 he was a startling minus-16 in what was essentially a two-point game late in the fourth.
Most alarmingly, the defense-oriented duo of Perkins and Ibaka allowed Miami to hit half of its shots in their 13 minutes playing together in Game 2, giving up points at a rate that would have garnered the Heat more than 112 points over a full 48 minutes.
On paper it may seem obvious that Perkins and Ibaka would dominate Chris Bosh and Shane Battier, but on the court the results have been much different.
Perkins, in particular, has had to scramble so far in this series, although there is nothing he is doing wrong. The big center is simply poorly equipped to chase Bosh or Battier out on the perimeter after giving help to a driving LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Mario Chalmers, and the Heat feasted on him.
When Battier and Bosh were together on the court in Game 2, the Heat shot 50 percent both from three and from the field, while outscoring the Thunder by 11 points. Battier had 17 points on Thursday for the second straight game after averaging 5.7 points per game in the first three rounds. Perkins, who was so pivotal in helping to shut down Tim Duncan in the Western Conference Finals, is a potentially dominant defensive force without a place or person to dominate in the Finals thus far.
None of the Thunder's lineups were particularly effective in Game 2, but the ones that were best involved some combination of Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Sefolosha, Collison and Derek Fisher. In other words, the Thunder were best when they stretched the floor offensively for Westbrook to drive, and were best defensively when they could match up with Miami's slashers and outside shooters.
Harden helps with this solution, but putting him in the starting lineup now would reek of desperation. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich moved reserve stud Manu Ginobili from the bench to start Games 5 and 6 of the conference finals, and while Ginobili exploded for 34 points in Game 5, he did not help San Antonio win that game or the next one. If Popovich's willingness to adjust is a reason for Brooks to consider his own adjustment, the Spurs' unwelcome fate is enough reason for Brooks to not consider it.
Great bench players have spoken of the unique mentality it takes to be an effective sixth man. Whatever that mentality is, Harden has it. To try to change that mentality in the middle of the most important series of his life may lead to more harm than good for Oklahoma City. If the move messes with the inner clocks of Perkins or Ibaka (because Sefolosha is too important defensively to relegate to the bench while James and Wade get into a rhythm at the start of the game), then the big men could be off-balance later on in the series when the Thunder need them to play crucial minutes.
Nothing drastic has to take place for Harden to check in before the customary five-minute stoppage, though. Should Brooks send him to the scorer's table a minute or so sooner, Harden could enter the game a few dead balls earlier than usual and the Thunder could get a jump on mitigating the damage caused by their big men. Meanwhile, Perkins still would have started and gotten a few touches to get into the flow of the ballgame.
Oklahoma City is tied 1-1 with the mighty Heat in the NBA Finals. The combination of Perkins and Ibaka in the starting lineup, with Harden coming off the bench, was an invaluable piece of the Thunder making it to this point. One loss is no reason to blow up the game plan. A tweak could be all that they need.