A matchup between MVP candidates lived up to its billing as James Harden led the Houston Rockets past Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder, 115-112, on Sunday. Both superstars delivered huge performances in a big matchup with playoff implications, but Harden came through with just enough to top Westbrook's latest triple-double.
With the Rockets looking to finish near the top of the West and the Thunder simply trying to make the postseason, both teams had something to play for Sunday. Harden and the Rockets came out firing on all cylinders, even though OKC was playing from a far more desperate position.
The Rockets led by 10 points after the first quarter, and maintained a solid eight-point lead into halftime. The Thunder kept things close with the heroics of Westbrook, Enes Kanter (21 points, 17 rebounds) and Anthony Morrow (22 points), but ultimately were overmatched without the likes of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka.
Houston led by as many as 13 in the final period, though the Thunder proved resilient with their playoff situation still uncertain. OKC pulled off a 20-7 run to tie the game, 100-100, only to see Harden drill a three-pointer on the next possession. He would end up with eight points during the next 70 seconds, extending Houston's lead to 108-101 with less than 90 seconds left.
Westbrook would do his best to keep things close from there, drilling a pair of late three-pointers to put the pressure on, but the Rockets hit free throw after free throw to put the game away. Houston went 7-of-8 from the charity stripe during the final 29 seconds of the game, keeping the Thunder at bay despite an impressive run from a team lacking two of its best players.
Even in a loss, Westbrook continued to impress, putting up his latest triple-double while nearly stealing a win against a title contender. The point guard finished with 40 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds, and had the Thunder in the mix despite shooting less than 44 percent with 18 turnovers.
That OKC couldn't come away with a victory isn't good for the team's playoff fortunes, however. The Thunder (42-35) are now just a half-game ahead of the New Orleans Pelicans (41-35) for the No. 8 seed in the West with just a few games remaining on the schedule. If OKC wants to hold off New Orleans, it can't afford many more losses before the end of the season.
3 other things we learned
The Cleveland Cavaliers are finding their form. Cleveland is at its best when LeBron James is at his best, and that happened Sunday when the team topped the Chicago Bulls, 99-94. James finished with 20 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds, efficiently beating a Chicago team that's still awaiting the return of Derrick Rose. With J.R. Smith and Kyrie Irving launching away from deep to add to LeBron's efficient performance, this wasn't nearly as close as the scoreboard indicates. The Cavaliers may have their holes, but nobody will want to face this team if it's rolling into the playoffs with some momentum.
Golden State isn't unstoppable. Of all the teams to end the Warriors' winning streak, we should've known it would be the defending champs. Kawhi Leonard led the way Sunday as the San Antonio Spurs topped Golden State, 107-92, to snap the team's 12-game winning streak. Leonard had a monster game, tying a career-high with 26 points and setting a career-high with seven steals, and the Spurs showed they're still a force in the Western Conference. San Antonio has gone 17-3 since Feb. 27.
The race for the No. 1 pick continues. The New York Knicks ended a nine-game losing streak Sunday night by beating the Philadelphia 76ers, 101-91. That's usually good news, but in this case it puts a dent in New York's odds of finishing with the worst record in the NBA. The Minnesota Timberwolves are 16-60, just ahead of the 15-62 Knicks, for the league's worst record and the best odds at the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft. New York has a few more winnable games from here, including Saturday in Orlando, and won't want to get too close to passing Minnesota in the standings.
Play of the Night
Some incredible plays look difficult. This incredible play by Kyrie Irving looks like a dude at your local rec center wildly tossing up balls from random parts of the court. Except Irving swished it, because he's one of the best basketball players in the world.
4 fun things
The only person who isn't impressed by this Chris Paul move is probably Carlos Boozer.
Kyrie's buzzer-beater wasn't the only one a Cavalier hit on Sunday.
When a block is so good it almost goes wrong.