A Sunday afternoon affair between the Rockets and Cavaliers featured an intriguing matchup where two MVP candidates did their best to will their undermanned teams to a victory. Houston has been playing without Dwight Howard for the past month or so, and Kyrie Irving missed his second-straight game due to a left shoulder strain.
It was James Harden who came out on top, as his 33 points, eight rebounds and five assists propelled his team to an impressive 105-103 overtime victory. Harden was significantly helped by fellow MVP candidate LeBron James, who missed a potential game-winning shot at the end of regulation and then two free throws with 4.2 seconds left in the OT period that would have put the Cavaliers ahead.
The game was filled with a bevy of controversial calls and flaring tempers. There were scuffles that led to technical fouls, and a flagrant one as well. It surely felt like the intensity of a postseason contest, and the thrilling ending left the audience wanting more.
Harden strengthened his MVP case with his big-time performance, and the growth and maturity he has displayed on both ends of the floor has made him a bona fide superstar. He’s averaging 27.1 points, 6.9 assists and 5.8 rebounds on the season, and his team is third in the West at 41-18 despite the prolonged absence of Howard. The Rockets sit just two games back in the loss column of the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.
“Fear the Beard” has emerged as a trademark linked to Harden over the years, and those fears have never been more warranted. He’s averaging a career-high in points, rebounds, assists, free throw percentage and steals. His PER is 27.05 and he’s second in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus stat. (first in ORPM) Harden leads the league in 30-point performances with 26 on the season, and to add to his excellent year, he’s first in WAR. (Wins Above Replacement)
And then there’s the Howard factor. When the big man left Los Angeles high and dry, he alluded to playing with an exceptional player in Harden and how he was looking forward to the success it could bring. Howard must be pleased with the fact that his team is still in contention despite him only playing in 32 of the 59 games this year, and much of that success is because of Harden.
Harden – with Howard sidelined and Chandler Parsons (the Rockets’ third-best player last year) in Dallas – somehow has his team one game better and a seed higher than they were on this date last year. Harden will benefit from Dwight’s services when he returns, but the shooting guard’s play so far makes him the clear front-runner for MVP.
MVP or not, Harden’s legacy will come down to his ability to perform well in the postseason. Oklahoma City Thunder fans still haven’t recovered from his no-show performances in the 2012 NBA Finals against the Heat, and he has struggled at times in the postseason with Houston. However, an MVP trophy could certainly give him some momentum going into this postseason and moving forward.
With Harden playing so well, I still can’t help but think how OKC would look with THIS version of him, as that team has been so riddled by injuries. Harden-Westbrook-Durant was already a deadly trio, and it would’ve been even better if they had more time to grow. That’s a group that had a chance to produce a surplus of titles, but we never got the chance to find out if they could pull it off. We’ll see if the Harden-led Rockets can do what the Thunder couldn’t.
Damian Lillard left all of Houston stunned when he knocked down a series-clinching three-pointer at the buzzer in Game 6 of last year’s first-round series against Houston. The year before that, Harden’s former team dispersed of Houston in the first round as well. The Rockets teams with T-Mac and Yao Ming never made it past the first round, but this team now has their most prolific scorer since McGrady, and Harden’s looking to do something T-Mac could never get done. Will it happen? We shall see!