The James Harden MVP train keeps on moving swiftly and efficiently as he nearly notches a triple double in a big 112-101 win over his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and getting a chance to outplay Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
It’s Harden’s third season since the trade from Oklahoma City to Houston, but it still sits with him; the Thunder preferred giving Serge Ibaka a big extension and not using the amnesty clause on Kendrick Perkins than make Harden a highly paid player. The Thunder still haven’t won an NBA championship, while Harden just might be the best player in the NBA this season, leading the league in scoring with 27 points per game and 17 games of 30 points or more.
He missed the triple double by one rebound in the win, finishing with 31 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds. He led the Rockets to an incredible 40-18 first quarter, maybe the most dominant and impressive first quarter from any team this season, playing against the Thunder with Westbrook and Durant. Something is off in Thunder-land, falling to 18-20, and not really managing to get another winning streak going since Durant’s latest return from injury.
Five more players on the Rockets scored in double figures – Trevor Ariza scored 17 points, Donatas Motiejunas added 14 and Dwight Howard, Patrick Beverley (with a very good performance on defense against Westbrook)) and Josh Smith each scored 13 points. Both the Thunder and the Rockets have made in-season moves to get better. Dion Waiters scored 16 for the Thunder. The Rockets had 18 combined from Smith and Corey Brewer. The Thunder are probably trying to get at least one more deal done, with Reggie Jackson on the trading block and Kendrick Perkins as well, along with a few more minor pieces.
But Thunder problems aside, the Rockets played the kind of game that shows they can be as good as anyone. It did involve Harden going 6-of-8 from beyond the arc, but these kind of scoring numbers aren’t a rarity from him. Only the efficiency thing is more of an issue, but he’s miles ahead of where he was at the beginning of the season. Is he a changed player? Probably not. Simply better than he was a year ago, which is saying something.
Harden made a little mess of Kevin Durant on one play, breaking his ankles and then pulling up for a 3-pointer. He’s much more in the spotlight right now than the defending (and exiting, let’s be honest) MVP winner from last season. He and his did a good job of forcing the Thunder to go in a different direction. Even though Durant and Westbrook scored 40 points and shot a combined 56% from the field, they were never really close to winning after getting stunned in the first quarter.
What’s not working for the Thunder? Their defense has slipped significantly over the last month, and their offense, despite the changing parts and the return of Durant, is one of the more predictable setups in the NBA. Sure, there’s plenty of talent on that side of the ball, but with Durant not playing close to the level that he was last season and Westbrook suddenly not looking all so super, even getting to .500 seems difficult.