Russell Westbrook takes off and not a single Houston Rocket gets in his way. The Oklahoma City Thunder's point guard is a blur, going 94 feet coast-to-coast so fast that he somehow leaves more than a second left on the clock — even though he started his dash with little more than five seconds remaining in the quarter.
This is how the third quarter ends in Oklahoma City, the NBA city with the college town atmosphere.
Then, the fourth quarter begins with Kevin Durant driving free for an emphatic, easy slam. Any questions? There certainly isn't anything close to a series here.
Oklahoma City 120, Rockets 91. Only a 29-point beating? Heck, it really wasn't even that close in the Rockets first playoff game in four years. Those back-to-back bursts of brilliance from the Thunder's two biggest stars — separated by a quarter break and the chance for the Rockets to steady themselves (in theory) — are just punctuation points on a larger reality.
Harden comes across as too laid back, too satisfied now that he's the lead star on a team. And like everything else a star does it carries over to everyone else.
These Thunder are faster, stronger, tougher and more equipped to win an NBA championship than ever before. And they want James Harden to know it. Oklahoma City's former play-making sixth man turned Rockets Mr. Everything may have been holding back these Thunder after all.
Oklahoma City certainly looks like a better defensive team without minus defender Harden playing major minutes.
This is the real statement from the opening weekend of the NBA playoffs. Oh, everyone will leave Sunday talking about Kobe Bryant's sometimes hilarious — and pretty precise — tweets off the Lakers loss to the Spurs. And rightly wonder what in the world Mike D'Antoni was thinking when he lashed out in annoyance and dubbed one of the greatest players in Lakers history "a fan" in his own postgame press conference. Does D'Antoni have a firing wish?
Nothing that happens in Oklahoma City can compete with that drama.
But it will mean much more in June. These Thunder possess a real defensive swagger now, an in-your-grill intensity that Harden's new team has no chance of matching. Not this series. Not next season. Maybe never.
Which should be a scary thought for Daryl Morey, Leslie Alexander and anyone else who stays up at night worrying about the Rockets future.
James Harden gave Houston a better season this year than almost anyone could have rightly expected. But he hasn't come close to finding himself on the defensive end of the floor. Harden doesn't turn 24 until late August, maybe there's still time. But Westbrook is only 24 and he's already a junkyard dog who goes for the jugular on both ends. And Serge Ibaka — Oklahoma City's version of Plastic Man — is even a little younger than Harden and he's a defensive game changer.
Just watch Westbrook rip the ball out of a Rockets' hands and start a fast break that ends with Kendrick Perkins of all people throwing an alley-oop to Ibaka. Just watch Ibaka rising high to volleyball spike away one Harden shot and alter several more.
These are the type of plays that shift playoff basketball games.
Right now, James Harden is exclusively an offensive player. When his shot is not falling, when he's not getting put on the free-throw line again and again, you get nights like this.
In his postgame press conference broadcast on NBA TV, Harden lamented that it seemed to be "one on five every time" for the Rockets. Then, he made one of the more bizarre statements in postgame press conference history.
"Believe it or not, I think this was good for us," Harden said. "Now we know how to play."
Can you imagine if Matt Schaub said something like that after the New England Patriots whacked the Texans on Monday Night Football? He never would have heard the end of it.
Where's the Russell Westbrook Intensity?
Harden sometimes comes across as too laid back, too satisfied now that he's the lead star on an NBA team. It's like his defensive intensity is lost in his beard. And like everything else a superstar does it carries over to the rest of the roster.
For there's Chandler Parsons telling the CSN cameras, "There's no way we shoot that bad or play that poorly again." Really, Chandler? The Rockets' 8-for-36 shooting from 3-point range doesn't look like an aberration as much as it does a premonition at this point.
As TNT analyst Greg Anthony observed as Westbrook and Co. built up a 102-69 lead, it's not even like Oklahoma City played its A Game.
Harden is supposed to be the leader. And the only thing he leads this night is in clearing the way for OKC's layup line.
Durant (an easy 24 points) can certainly be more forceful if need be. Even Westbrook — who almost put up a triple double (19 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds) in only 30 minutes — has much more to give.
The Rockets miss their first nine shots of the game, don't hit their first goal until six minutes and 16 seconds in. They go on another 0 for 9 stretch in the third, need a 7-0 run to pull within 26 at one point . . . and James Harden is talking about it being good for them?
Do you think that Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant ever declared a 29-point beatdown a good learning experience? Forget about being outmanned. Truly elite stars like MJ, like Kobe, like Chris Paul, for that matter, all stepped forward and did their best to carry overmatched teams early in their playoff careers.
Harden's 6-for-19, 20-point line from Game 1 in Oklahoma City doesn't even belong in the conversation. He's not the only Rocket who struggles. Jeremy Lin goes 1 for 7. Parsons manages only three rebounds in 24 minutes. Center Omer Asik sometimes looks like he's playing a whole different sport when he's trying to score inside.
But James Harden is the best player. He's supposed to be the leader.
And the only thing he leads this night is in clearing the way for Oklahoma City's layup line.
A no-defense star equals no chance.