OAKLAND, Calif.—Let’s be clear: the Most Valuable Player award already belongs to Stephen Curry, and nothing that happens in the Western Conference finals will change that. The voting is over, the engraving has been done, and no one, not even James Harden, can snatch that honor away from the Golden State Warriors’ scintillating point guard. But it’s one thing to win a media election, and another to win a face-to-face confrontation, especially with a trip to the NBA Finals at stake. So, understand something else: the subtext of this series between the Warriors and the Houston Rockets is a question: Did the MVP voters get it right?
It’s safe to say that Harden, the Rockets’ do-everything leader, doesn’t think so. His answers have had a tone of annoyance when asked about finishing second to Curry in the balloting, and he’s made it clear that he feels he deserved the award, with comments that Curry termed, “a little aggressive.”
Aggressive, yes, but not surprising. Even Curry’s staunchest supporters have to admit Harden had a strong case after leading an injury-depleted Rockets team to the second-best record in the West. Or maybe they don’t have to admit that. The Warriors fans at Oracle Arena on Tuesday night gave Curry a serenade of “M-V-P!,” which is accurate, while treating Harden to a chant of “Over-rated!” which is not.
[daily_cut.NBA]The on-court referendum is far from over, but the early returns have Curry in front once again, thanks to the Warriors’ 110–106 victory in Game 1 on Tuesday. Just as in the regular season, both players stated their case strongly, particularly in a fourth quarter that turned into a mini-duel. After a so-so start, Curry heated up in the second half and finished with 34 points on 22 shots, including six threes in 11 attempts. Harden, once again, was outstanding, but not quite good enough to beat him, carrying the Rockets in the fourth quarter with a few “how-did-he-make-that?” shots in a rally that fell just short. Falling short has become a habit for the Rockets against Golden State. The Warriors have now won all five meetings between the teams this season, which may have been part of the reason that Curry drew 100 of the 130 first-place votes in the MVP balloting.
“They’re both living up to expectations, (showing) why they were neck-and-neck to win the MVP,” said Rockets forward Josh Smith. Even in victory, the Warriors were worn out by Harden. “For a stretch there it seemed like he hit—no, he did hit everything,” said forward Draymond Green. “It wasn’t just that it ‘seemed’ like it. He hit step-back jumpers and Klay [Thompson] was all over him.”
The Rockets were just as impressed with and frustrated by Curry. “Tip your hat to him,” said Houston guard Jason Terry. “The man made some shots that not too many people in this league can make.” One of them was a critical three that Curry managed to hit while falling to the ground in the fourth quarter that stretched the Warriors’ lead to 106–97 with 3:08 left. It was the kind of clutch shot that MVPs make.
Not that those three little letters are on Curry’s mind at the moment. There are more important honors to be earned. “It’s entertaining basketball,” he said of his duel with Harden, “but we’re both supposed to do what we can to help our team win and impact the game. There’s no real time to chat about extracurriculars.”
Curry scored 11 points and Harden had 10 in the fourth, as the Warriors tried to pull away and the Rockets refused to let them. Harden banked in runners over the outstretched hands of Green and center Festus Ezeli as well as those step-backs while Thompson was all but attached to him. Curry hit his dagger three in addition to sneaking free for a pair of wide open layups by moving without the ball. In the end it was Curry, making a pair of free throws for the Warriors’ final points that put the game just out of reach of Harden, who missed a last-gasp three just before the buzzer. Symbolic.
If Harden or his fans have visions of him earning some measure of satisfaction by sending Curry home from the postseason, he will have to be even better than he was in Game 1. It doesn’t help that in Game 1 at least, he didn’t get the benefit of some of the foul calls he drew during the regular season. He stared in disbelief at referees Dan Crawford, Marc Davis, and Sean Wright on more than a few occasions when they declined to send him to the line after he drew—or created, depending on your point of view—contact on drives to the hoop. Harden shot six free throws, making five. If the Warriors limit him to similar production from the line for the rest of the series, the rest of the series may be brief.
But that’s a big “if.” If Game 1 is any indication, the series promises to be a back-and-forth kind of battle, the same kind of competition Curry and Harden waged for the MVP. One contest between the two guards is over, but a bigger one has only just begun.