James Harden and Russell Westbrook are blasting apart expectations for what a single player can do with laser beams, recording garish stat lines just about nightly for two playoff teams in the West. But naturally, in a duel between the one-man shows, a play that didn’t record a single statistic for either won the game.
It was Harden’s pass over Oklahoma City’s defense that led to Houston’s 118-116 win on Thursday. It was a perfect one, sliding past and through Steven Adams’ outstretched mitts and directly to a wide-open Nene rolling to the basket. Nene was fouled at the rim, ruining Harden’s assist, but the two free throws stood for a Thunder win.
Mike D’Antoni’s inbounds play used Harden’s massive offensive load to spring Nene for a game-winner. Of course the Thunder tracked Harden as closely as they did, but if Steven Adams didn’t? It’s a open pull-up jumper for Harden, and we might be talking about the game with the same outcome, but just different results.
Westbrook won the direct battle between the two players, even while losing the war. His 49 points on 16-of-34 shooting — plus eight rebounds and five assists — was the only thing helping the Thunder keep up with Houston’s offensive juggernaut early on, and then propelling Oklahoma City on an 18-point second half comeback to take a lead late in the fourth. You can critique Westbrook’s three-point attempt tied at 116, which he missed as he pulled up over his defender without ever trying to attack. You can wish he attacked the basket on last-minute plays like that, where his aberrational athleticism shows up most frequently. You cannot criticized his game or his meaning to the Thunder, though. You cannot say Oklahoma City was tied with seconds left without assigning credit to him first, second and third.
Westbrook eats up a higher percentage of the team’s total possessions still, while Harden orchestrates a more lethal offense. At some point, the two leather-jacket-wearing rockstars dueling each other becomes a game of “which would you rather have?” As the two players are collective our top two MVP candidates so far this season, it’s an impossible question to avoid. It’s not one either of them consider, former teammates who sometimes still act like they were wearing the same colors.
It doesn’t really matter which one is better when they’re playing each other. They both resemble Atlas, holding the world that is their offense on their backs for eternity — or at least, this season. But unlike the Greek mythology figure, they weren’t tricked into this. They chose it, or at least accept it, willingly. They’re this damn good to make it work, so as Westbrook would say, why not?
The three games between the two titans have all been decided by three points or less so far this year. In each, Oklahoma City has roared back from second half deficits, winning one but falling short in the last two. But also in both games, we’ve enjoyed every moment of these two duking it out.
Westbrook is still averaging a triple-double, and Harden notched one of the best games of all time with 53 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists just last week. They’re both turning the NBA into their personal playground. When they do it on the same court, we can’t look away.
Thursday’s top performances
James Harden and Russell Westbrook (see above)
Kyle Lowry (33 points, 10-17 shooting, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals)
In today’s early returns of All-Star voting, it’s Lowry who is comically far down in the East. Zaza Pachulia’s bizarro second-place finish took the headlines, but Lowry’s is the more impactful one. He’s been starter-level good, and his 33 points came in c-l-u-t-c-h down the stretch for Toronto on a night where shots were tough to come by and the team shot under 40 percent overall.
Jeff Teague (21 points, 9-13 shooting, 15 assists, 7 rebounds) and Myles Turner (25 points, 9-15 shooting, 15 rebounds, 5 blocks)
It’s four straight wins for Indiana now, after winning consecutive games just four separate times through the season’s first 33 games. Ask the Pacers, and they’ll tell you the consistency and the chemistry is coming along now. Those might just be buzzwords everyone uses when they win games, and it hasn’t exactly been a murder’s row over the past four. But Indiana lifting itself over .500 is huge for them, and maybe they can even stay there.
Tony Parker (21 points, 10-11 shooting, 9 assists, 1 turnover)
Take his photo off the back of milk cartons. You can cancel that amber alert. Parker maybe have started a bit slow, but he’s fine. He’s the same player he was last year, anyway — a low volume but highly efficient floor general who will play just enough to set the team in place. We’re just mad he missed even a shot.
Thursday’s top news
Kyle Korver is headed to the Cavaliers, and basically for nothing.
Thursday’s top play
It didn’t count. I’m so disappointed this didn’t count. But I have to reward Marco Belinelli for even trying a pass off a defender’s back on a game-winning attempt, and also celebrate the fact that the shot did go in.
The rest of Thursday
Lucas Nogueira dropped his shorts to his ankles without warning.
Kawhi Leonard, two-time DPOY, is now stealing the ball from his own teammates.