It's like James Harden has aged seven playoff years in the 11 days this first round series between the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder has already stretched out. Harden keeps making monster leaps, pulling off progressions that are supposed to take a long time in virtually no time.
The Rockets budding superstar may be the quickest learner in the NBA. This 23-year-old keeps defying convention, dragging these giddy Kid Rockets along with him.
What's Harden done now? Oh, he just trumped Kevin Durant — the second most talented player in the entire league, one of David Stern's Chosen Ones — in leadership in a playoff game that could shift the future of two franchises. Jeremy Lin, who sits again through no fault of his own (he asks to play), could pick up some leadership tips from Harden's Game 5 too.
Almost anyone could. That's how good No. 13 is.
Harden sets the tone for his team when he makes fun of his horrific 10 turnover "double double" minutes after Game 4 ends in a two-point Rockets escape. Durant dooms his team when he starts pouting and stops attacking in Game 5 when he realizes his 18-point third quarter will not be enough, when he sees that teammates like Kevin Martin are anything but up to the moment.
Shaquille O'Neal will call Durant out for the pouts on national TV, but you have to start to wondering if it's already not too late for these Thunder.
Durant and the Thunder still have the lead in the series at 3-2, but they seem to have lost their belief.
Kevin McHale's Rockets go dancing out of Oklahoma City with a resounding 107-100 Game 5 win, headed for what promises to be one of the wildest Houston sports nights in recent memory: The Game 6 almost no one expected to see Friday night at Toyota Center.
Durant and the Thunder still have the lead in the series at 3-2, but they seem to have lost their belief. It comes crashing down as Harden drops 3-pointer after 3-pointer on their heads. Most of this series, he's been the star who can't shoot straight, bull headedly still throwing up long jumpers even after air balls.
But on this Wednesday night in the arena he used to call home, James Harden can't miss. And suddenly every other Rocket is feeding off his loose energy.
"We came out here and played pressure free," Harden says in a postgame press conference shown on NBA TV. "Just go out there and hoop."
Just go out there and hoop. Halfway to history.
Of the 110 prior NBA playoff series that have ever started 0-3, only 13 of them have ever even reached a sixth game. The Rockets just made it 14. Win at home on Friday night and they'll be only the fourth team in NBA history to ever force a Game 7 after being down 0-3. Of course, no one's ever come all the way back from down 0-3 to actually win an NBA Playoff series.
But with the way Harden is suddenly shooting, with the way Durant seems to be giving up on his teammates, with the way ex-Rocket Kevin Martin is choking, Houston somehow has at least a puncher's chance of being the historic first.
It's both absurd. And somehow fitting.
"I've said all year long the beauty of these kids — these young men — is that they fight," Rockets coach Kevin McHale says in his own TV broadcast press conference. "They're battlers."
It's fair to wonder how much stomach Durant and the Thunder have left for this fight. As soon as Russell Westbrook went out with that torn knee, I wrote that the Rockets had a real opportunity to steal the series even though they were down 0-2 at the time. It's impossible to overstate how much Westbrook means to this Oklahoma City team.
"They miss him everywhere," McHale says. "How would you not? He's one of the top players in the league."
"I've said all year long the beauty of these kids — these young men — is that they fight."
The Thunder don't just miss the fearless UCLA product, they're slowly unraveling like a ball of yarn without him. Oklahoma City — the best team in the power-packed West all season — is getting desperate, repeatedly fouling Rockets center Omer Asik to force him to shoot free throws, panically leaning on the strategy overmatched underdogs used to employ against Shaq.
". . . Hack A Turk?" McHale jokes in the postgame. McHale hasn't done everything right this season (see his yo-yoing of Lin's playing time). But he deserves major credit for keeping Asik in the game on this night and messing with the Thunder's minds. Asik hits his free throws (try 9 for 13 in the deliberate fouling stretch) and McHale claims he almost even sent the lumbering center out there to shoot a technical foul late in the game.
Yes, this old Boston Celtic knows a thing or two about mind games.
Kevin Durant's Pressure Point
This really should be Kevin Durant's moment. But he seems to be feeling the pressure of Westbrook's absence more and more every game. He'd been so positive with his guys, but you don't have to be Shaq to see that his body language is horrible in the fourth quarter in Game 5. It's like Harden stunned the will out of a player who's more talented than him, an already long-time star who should be a better leader than the Rockets go-to-man newbie.
Harden hits his first three, then another and . . . another. By the time he buries his fifth 3-pointer without a miss, the Rockets are up 59-47 early in the second half.
"You can't expect them to give it to us," Thunder coach Scott Brooks screams during one timeout captured by TNT's cameras. "We've got to go take it."
Good luck with that. Durant goes superhuman, scores 18 points in the third quarter . . . and the Rockets still increase their lead. The former University of Texas star can only wonder where his help will ever come from.
Martin has been absolutely dreadful in this series, shooting 33 percent or under in four of the five games now. Durant's gotten him a ton of open shots — and Martin's mostly missed. Again and again and again. He starts 0 for 9 on this night, looks about as ready as a clingy Kindergartner is for the first day of school.
But the truth is, Durant should be ashamed of himself too. He's better than this. He should be stronger than this.
Rockets rookie guard Patrick Beverley is Public Enemy No. 1 in Oklahoma City after this post-timeout call Game 2 knee knock ended the season of the electric Westbrook. He'd soak the relentless boos in — and be fine.
He has James Harden on his side. He has the best leader in the series to lean on. Now, that's wild.
Halfway to history.