Apr. 18, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden points prior to the game against the Phoenix Suns at the US Airways Center. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE
Fear the beard, indeed. James Harden exploded to lead the Thunder past a tough Suns team on Wednesday.
A couple playoff seeding battles hung in the balance when the Oklahoma City Thunder and Phoenix Suns took the US Airways Center floor. The Thunder hoped to remain within half a game of San Antonio for the first seed in the Western Conference while the Suns were clinging desperately to the West's eighth seed. Phoenix made a game out of it, but James Harden's career-high 40 points were more than the Suns could overcome. The bearded one led Oklahoma City to a 109-97 win.
Phoenix started nicely and, for the most part, were all right when Steve Nash and the starters were on the floor. With Nash directing the ball and Channing Frye, Jared Dudley, and Shannon Brown splashing jumpers, the Suns surged out to a 19-6 lead midway through the first quarter. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook couldn't get anything to fall for the Thunder, and folks were very much enjoying themselves in Phoenix.
Then, with just over five minutes remaining in the quarter, a couple important things happened in rapid succession. First, Nash picked up his second foul, which sent him to the bench soon thereafter. Seconds later, Harden checked into the game, stepping into what would end up being a gem of an evening. Harden promptly sparked a swift Thunder run, reeling off 10 points by himself through the final four minutes of the period. Oklahoma City wiped away Phoenix's lead, and Harden carried them from there.
While Phoenix kept within range with fits of competent offense (pretty much whenever the starters were on the floor), Harden was unwaveringly competent. He set up camp at the right elbow to drill five of eight three-point attempts, and filled things in with a couple crisp pull-up jumpers and some dazzling finishes in transition. In the fourth, he tossed in a couple beautiful assists -- one no-look dish to Durant in transition and a bounce pass through Robin Lopez's legs to a Nick Collison and-one -- just for fun. He'd finish with 40 points (a career-high) on just 17 shots (oddly, also even with a career-high), seven rebounds, four steals, and three lovely assists. Man's pretty good at sports.
Phoenix actually trimmed its deficit to just one point in the third quarter, but Harden spearheaded a big run to open the fourth, generating a double-digit lead that Oklahoma City would never relinquish. Durant, who had the quietest 29 points imaginable -- sank a couple big jumpers in that period to keep Phoenix at arm's length.
As a result of the win, Oklahoma City kept pace with the winning Spurs, and they now remain half a game behind them in the second seed. Phoenix, unfortunately, dropped out of the playoff picture with the loss, a Utah win, and a Houston loss, are now even with the Rockets at 32-30, half a game behind the 33-30, eight-seeded Jazz. That Western Conference is TIGHT, y'all.
For all of Wednesday's NBA box scores, check out SI.com's NBA scoreboard.