Thunder versus Rockets is Westbrook versus Harden - the rest is barely even secondary

LeBron James versus Paul George is the match-up of the Eastern Conference first round, but James Harden versus Russell Westbrook is unmistakably the choicest cut overall.

The two presumptive front runners for the MVP Award – an award which, it should be remembered, has not been decided upon yet – go head to head in the tie of the round. Russell Westbrook and James Harden will face off in a beautiful match-up. It matters not that Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, Andre Roberson and Victor Oladipo will draw far more of the defensive time on the duo than each other – this is about a match-up of two players, their talents, how much they can do for their teams, and their will to win.

To win, Houston spreads the floor and lets Harden pull the strings, a barrage of high pick-and-rolls that, when they are hitting their shots, is a fairly unbeatable combination. In accordance with cliché, they live with the three and they die by the three, but so good are they at this facet of the game that they normally live. They yield a rebounding disadvantage in this series to the Thunder (the league’s best rebounding team this season), yet the Rockets can, via Ryan Anderson, stretch the floor to counter this. A well spaced floor with good ball movement will open up plenty of three point looks, no matter how good at scrambling the opposing defense is.

In a sense, Oklahoma City tries to do much the same except without the luxury of spacing. The worst three point team in the league got by hugely, if not quite entirely, due to the herculean efforts of Westbrook. He achieved the until-recently-considered-extremely-unlikely feat of averaging a triple-double for the season, and did so while leading the league in scoring. They were points-heavy triple-doubles, and any over-scrutiny of his rebounding numbers, enormous turnovers or staggering usage rate is a ridiculous distraction from the brilliance and enormity of his achievements. He did what he had to do, nightly, for 82 games.

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Now, he needs to do it for four more. Westbrook’s job is to roll the rock up the mountain four more times, a Sisyphean task if ever there was one. He did pretty much all of it before, and he will have to do so again. The Thunder are statistically more successful when Westbrook shoots less and facilitates more, but that statistic in isolation overlooks how sometimes, with their static movement and lack of ability to hit contested shots, Westbrook cannot facilitate his team mate’s offense more. There is little of it to go around.

This is not to say that the Thunder lack for other quality players. They do, of course, and particularly defensively, where the remainder of the roster has provided the tenth best defense in the NBA this season. (Credit given solely to “the rest of the roster” because apparently, in getting all those rebounds, Westbrook swore off playing any defense. Apparently.) Andre Roberson has become one of the best wing defenders in the game, Taj Gibson was targeted precisely to handle the forwards and add interior guile, while in addition to his continued incremental improvements offensively, Steven Adams is the muscle and the enforcer, always in his spot and not one to be challenging.

Nevertheless, facing the second best offense in the NBA that just scored 115.3 points per game on a 114.7 offensive rating, even a highly functioning Thunder defense will still need more than 400 points in four wins to overcome. Into this breach steps Westbrook. By and large, notwithstanding touches for Enes Kanter and the best efforts of Victor Oladipo, the other Thunder players can only score if Westbrook helps them, and none of them can do so as well as he can.

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Similarly needing to elevate is Harden. Throughout his career, Harden has always pushed back against the perceptions of the limits of his talent level, and won. Even when Mike D’Antoni make the much-derided suggestion that Harden could double his assist totals this year when playing fully on the ball, he went out and came a lot closer to doing so than the deriders thought possible. But one thing Harden has yet to do is find the next level, the ultimate one, the one from which legends are born.

It is easy and perhaps lazy to cite a need for a team’s best player to raise their games in the playoffs, and if it is a cop out, then I have done it about 12 times this year already and as guilty as anyone. Basketball is a team game at its core and will remain so for all time. But there is potential for a much larger impact to be made by any individual player in this sport than in other team sports with more players, and one player really can swing a series.

Harden, MVP candidate and eventual MVP award winner one of these days even if it is not this year, has the potential shared only by a few others to elevate his already top tier game to the extra tier only a few can even see, let alone reach. But he has yet to have really done so. Extra-level playoff performances are how a legacy is defined, moreso than the slightly arbitrary nature of an MVP award. He must do so, and he can do so now. The motivation for doing so is his opponent in this series and one-time team mate, Westbrook. Harden has always had a chip on his shoulder. This is the time and the place to harness that power.

Houston has put its short, medium and long term futures on Harden’s shoulders. Albeit not as much on purpose, Oklahoma City has done the same with Westbrook. The two responded with astronomical regular season performances that stack up with any season by any player in NBA history. But this, more than the entirely subjective MVP award, will determine who wins. Both must dial in, commit to the defense they have all too often shirked on the road thus far, cut out the sloppy stat-hunting turnovers, and conquer the other. Then we’ll know.

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