With the ball in his hands and a chance to be the hero, James Harden instead dished the ball away, finding Nene down low for what would eventually turn into two game-winning free throws. The Rockets defeated the Thunder 118–116 in Houston on Thursday night, and in a clash between the league’s top two candidates for MVP, Harden’s team play down the stretch gave his squad the slightest edge over Russell Westbrook’s.
On the possession before Nene’s winning free throws, Westbrook found himself in a similar situation to Harden, with the ball in his hands, above the break on the right wing. But Westbrook instead put the game on his own shoulders, rising for a contested three over Harden as opposed to trying to penetrate or break down the defense. The result was a clanked three that set up Houston’s final possession.
Look, this isn’t to say that Russ isn’t a team player or made the wrong decision. In fact, Westbrook was sublime Thursday night, pouring in 49 points thanks in large part to a career-high eight three-pointers. He carried the team for long stretches, and earned himself the opportunity to win the game for OKC at the end. Instead, Harden’s unselfish play highlights the biggest difference between the two MVP front runners: Their supporting casts.
Oklahoma City’s bench did a commendable job clawing back into the game in the fourth quarter, but the Thunder’s offensive attack was mostly too unbalanced to keep pace with Houston until their late comeback. Victor Oladipo acquitted himself well, as did EnesKanter, but guys like DomantasSabonis, Jerami Grant, Alex Abrines and even Steven Adams were too often non-factors against the Rockets. The Thunder have a great record when Westbrook records a triple double, and that’s probably because those assist totals mean his teammates are consistently hitting shots.
On the other hand, Houston got a steady 26 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds from Harden, while five other players scored in double digits. Nene was great all night, attacking the rim with ferocity en route to 18 points, along with the game-winning free throws. Eric Gordon hit five threes, and added in flashes of his off-the-bounce game to keep defenders honest. Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley also stepped up with some timely threes of their own.
Both the Rockets and Thunder put a large burden on their superstars, but whereas Westbrook is forced to be the engine and drive the car at the same time, Harden has more of an opportunity to direct traffic until he decides to take over himself.
If there’s one thing this game did, it made figuring out the battle for MVP between Westbrook and Harden even more difficult. Do you prefer Russ, who puts up eye-popping numbers while his team asks him to do practically everything besides cook the post-game meal? Or do you prefer Harden, who has perfected his skills as a maestro so well that Houston is a surprise top-three team in the West?
It may sound like Russ has the more difficult job, but fair or unfair, team success has historically played a major role in who is awarded MVP, and right now, Harden’s Rockets are thoroughly exceeding expectations.
Fortunately for us, there are plenty of games left this season (including one more Harden vs. Westbrook showdown), many more triple-doubles to be recorded and hopefully another handful of 50-point explosions as well. There are no decisions to be made about MVP during the first week of January. If we’re lucky, Harden and Westbrook (and Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and LeBron James) will continue to make the decision a tough one.