The NBA’s Most Valuable Player award may be for the regular season, but if there were a trophy handed out for the first game of the Houston Rockets-Oklahoma City Thunder playoff series, James Harden would’ve decisively claimed it.
Harden had his way with a porous Thunder defense, as Houston lit up Oklahoma City, 118-87 on Sunday. The Beard was unstoppable against his former team, slicing and dicing the Thunder up for 37 points on 13-of-28 shooting. Harden rounded his night out with nine assists, seven rebounds, and three steals.
He did it while firmly outplaying Russell Westbrook, who struggled with 22 points on 6-of-23 shooting, with 11 rebounds, seven assists, and nine turnovers.
The Rockets outscored the Thunder by 22 with their All-Star guard on the floor, and they did it in style.
Harden claimed at least one pair of ankles on Sunday, reducing Enes Kanter to ash before finishing with a graceful lay-in at the rim. He shook Andre Roberson out of the picture frame and literally shot the ball as if Jerami Grant didn’t exist.
Houston needed a big game from Harden and got it.
The Rockets only got 19 combined points out of Lou Williams and Eric Gordon. Had Patrick Beverley not exploded for 21 points in 26 minutes, the Thunder could have been much closer.
But Harden’s steady hand kept Oklahoma City at bay, one demeaning bucket at a time. The Thunder continuously switched big men onto the league’s most fearsome isolation scorer, and he made them pay repeatedly.
There’s a reason he’s one of two leading candidates for the league’s MVP award: He does his job and does it really, really well.
James Harden is really good.— Kazeem Famuyide (@RealLifeKaz) April 17, 2017
The Rockets have a bevy of shooters who make life much easier for Harden. But between Williams, Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Trevor Ariza, only 2-of-13 triples went down. That’s why Harden’s dependable scoring was of the utmost value to the Rockets on Sunday, and why it’ll be increasingly valuable as Houston attempts to rage through the postseason.
The Rockets will go as Harden goes. And at least for Game 1, James Harden went berserk.