Tuesday April 7th, 2015

James Harden and Russell Westbrook are neck and neck in the race for the 2014-15 NBA scoring title, striding headlong toward an exciting finish.

In fact, heading into Tuesday’s slate of action, the winner would have to be determined by the hundredth decimal place. Harden holds a tenuous grasp on the title with a scoring average of 27.68 points per game, while Westbrook is nipping at his heels at 27.66.

That differential (0.02) would be the closest scoring title race in league history if sustained through Game 82—trumping the duel between George Gervin and David Thompson in 1977-78, which was decided by a 0.07 margin. So as the season winds to a close, who has the edge in this showdown of MVP candidates?

In their head-to-head meeting on Sunday—a 115–112 win for the Rockets—Harden (41 points) narrowly edged Westbrook (40 points) in the win column and the box score. The two won’t square off against each other again this season (barring a postseason meeting), but each player still has five games left to clinch the scoring crown.

Harden will face the Spurs twice before games against the Pelicans, Hornets and Jazz to close out the year. Those two meetings against San Antonio may look like a bad omen for Harden’s chances, given that Kawhi Leonard and Gregg Popovich’s crew as a whole excel on the defensive end of the court, but the bearded shooting guard has actually scored with impressive efficiency against the defending champs this season.

In his first two meetings against the Spurs (a Nov. 6 win and Dec. 28 loss), Harden averaged 24 points while shooting a stellar 54.5% from the field. For reference, the only opponents he’s shot a higher percentage against this season are the Bucks, Pacers and Hornets (whom he’ll face on April 13). Taking care of the ball has been an entirely different story, as he coughed up 8.5 turnovers per game in those two meetings. When strictly discussing scoring, though, Harden hasn’t hemorrhaged efficiency against Coach Pop’s elite roster.

Russell Westbrook opens up: All there really is to the Thunder superstar

All told, the former No. 3 overall pick is averaging 22.7 points per game on 45.1% shooting from the field and 37.5% from three-point range against the four remaining opponents. Those numbers are very respectable when compiled together, but it’s worth noting that Harden has had his fair share of struggles against Utah (37.8% shooting from the field, 27.8% from beyond the arc in three meetings). It’s also unlikely that averaging less than 23 points the rest of the way will net Harden the scoring title. He’ll need to bump up his scoring average against the upcoming foes.

Westbrook, meanwhile, will continue to carry Oklahoma City in the absence of both Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. He’ll also have to face the defending champion Spurs himself before going up against the Kings, Pacers, Trail Blazers and Timberwolves.

On paper, that’s an easier schedule than what Harden is set to face. Matchups against the Kings and Timberwolves—two of the worst teams in the Western Conference—are much more favorable than facing the surging Jazz and Spurs twice. But do Westbrook’s numbers against those opponents hint that he should be the favorite for perhaps the closest scoring title race we’ve ever seen? His dominance against Portland could prove the biggest indicator.

Quite frankly, OKC’s triple-double machine has haunted Rip City this season. The UCLA product has annihilated Portland’s defense on three separate occasions with a pair of 40-point explosions, as well as a 38-point outing in the season opener. His three-point shooting was inconsistent in those affairs—it’s been downright putrid all season with a mark of 29.2%—but it’s difficult to fault a shooting percentage of 44.6% overall to accompany a whopping 13 free-throw attempts per contest.

Westbrook is averaging 28.3 points per game against the opponents he has remaining on the schedule, fueled by his explosions against the Trail Blazers. Coupled with the fact that OKC is still fighting to lock up a playoff seed and relying heavily on its All-Star point guard for scoring production, Westbrook appears to have a slight edge on Harden with just five more games to go.

Of course, the entire body of work has to be taken into account as well. And while neither player has been a model of efficient scoring, Harden leads the way across the board in shooting splits: 44.3/38.1/86.5 versus Westbrook’s 41.9/29.2/83.9.

Harden hasn’t been great from mid-range throughout the campaign, but at 38.1% from three-point territory, he’s converting threes at his best rate since the 2011-12 season (when he was still Westbrook’s teammate in Oklahoma City). Most of his three-pointers (and roughly a third of his shot attempts overall) have come from above the break, where he’s shooting a very impressive 36.3% (above the league average of 34%).

Westbrook, on the other hand, takes far fewer three-pointers compared to his overall shot selection (and for good reason). The dynamic floor general is making less than 30% of his triples above the break. That certainly hasn’t hindered his ability to score points in volume, though. He still puts up a league-leading 21.7 shot attempts per game while getting to the charity stripe 9.8 times per contest—second only to… you guessed it, James Harden.

Perhaps the three-point prowess will ultimately tip the scales in Harden’s favor, but in any case, this is sure to be a battle for the record books.

More from Ben Leibowitz:

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