Harden-Westbrook Duel Shows Contrast Between Rockets, Thunder

In a matchup of MVP contenders James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the Rockets and Thunder highlighted the differences in how they’re built around their NBA superstars.
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No man is an island, as the 17th century poet John Donne famously wrote. But with the best of intentions and greenest of lights, Russell Westbrook and James Harden have done their damndest for the last six weeks. Neither the Thunder nor Rockets are confidently among the league’s small circle of contenders, but when the former teammates meet, there’s an intersection that starts with the stars, dances around the post-season conversation and ends firmly at this year’s MVP debate.

They engaged head to head Friday night, the Rockets having won four straight, the Thunder six, and Houston eventually slogging away through a slugfest of a fourth quarter to an 102–99 win. The Rockets firmly controlled the run of play, the Thunder cut it to four after a 10–1 run midway through the fourth, and the game ended with both teams going ultra-small and both offenses sputtering all the way out. Neither team played the night before. It was uglier than a prime Friday timeslot. But it underscores the even matchup, and the duality of the principal players.

Stylistically, if Harden is a snowmobile, Westbrook is a snowplow. Their basic numbers tell a similar enough story, the eye test does not. The Rockets have built an engine for Harden—they play roughly the same style, seeking threes and layups, to reduced effect with him off the floor. He probes and attacks in a manner that appears calculated enough. Houston’s offensive philosophy has always been his own. Westbrook is the engine for the rest of the Thunder, barreling around with jaw-dropping spontaneity. When he’s out of the game and the ball is pounded in to Enes Kanter, it often feels like they ought to just stall as long as possible. He’s the one averaging a triple double largely because he’s the one that needs to, as much as any player can legitimately stake that claim.

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To that point, the Rockets led much of the first half despite Harden taking until the 5:12 mark of the second quarter to convert a field goal. This was not the game to milk the head-to-head narrative, with longtime Westbrook nemesis Patrick Beverley in his shirt the entire game (it won’t make SportsCenter, but 1-of-8 shooting with 12 rebounds, five assists and no turnovers was quintessential Bev.) Aside from a life-threatening aerial assault on Enes Kanter by Houston’s Sam Dekker, this was game largely a back-and forth lull at halftime. The stats finished essentially a toss-up, Westbrook’s 27-10-10 triple double edging Harden’s 21-12-9, both players shooting miserably. 

It’s not the game anyone will watch when we’re nitpicking the awards race, the final two minutes dotted by flailing layups, fouls and head-shakers. It was a game we’ll all forget, thankfully, given the bigger-picture connotations of Harden and Westbrook’s individual seasons. For added context: Tiny Archibald (who, for the record, stood only 6' 1") is the only player to lead the NBA in scoring and assists in a season when he averaged 34 points and 11.3 assists for the Kansas City/Omaha Kings in 1973. It seems foregone that Harden and/or Westbrook will join him. 

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The only players to average at least 28 and 11 in a season are Archibald and Oscar Robertson, who pulled it off three times. Westbrook’s seventh straight triple double tied Robertson and Michael Jordan’s streaks, and put him two short of Wilt Chamberlain’s record. He’s averaging a triple double, if you hadn’t heard, which is as easy a ticket to the MVP as any if the Thunder can survive the long road to a playoff berth. If not, the Rockets appear to be on the faster track, and Harden’s case may finally be enough. Watching these guys shoulder this level of offensive responsibility while their teams are actually winning is legitimately historic stuff (just, nobody tell Oscar that.)

No man is an island, but nobody called hand checks back when John Donne was around, either.