James Harden, Russell Westbrook

The Houston Rockets beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 115-112, James Harden outscored and outplayed Russell Westbrook, which might result in the Thunder actually missing the playoffs.

With the loss, the Thunder are now once again only 0.5 games ahead of the Pelicans for the final spot in the Western conference, having played one more game. The Rockets have now played the same amount of games as the Memphis Grizzlies and have a one game edge over them with five games remaining for both teams this season.

In the duel between Harden and Westbrook which is also for the MVP and the scoring title, Westbrook lost. He scored 40 points (got his triple double with 11 rebounds and 13 assists) while Harden finished with 41. But that wasn’t the only difference. Harden scored 8 points in a 70-second span with the game tied at 100-100 to pull away for victory. Westbrook, on the final play, didn’t think about anything but shooting to tie the game and didn’t even get to the basket with his desperation shot.

It will be quite amusing if the Thunder don’t make the playoffs partially because of this loss. The injuries have always been part of this team’s playoff lore and this season more than ever, possibly even keeping them out of the postseason, but there’s always the Harden trade angle somehow falling into place. It’s been talked about and chewed up from about every angle and by every person, and yet some find that it never gets old.

So what happened that pushed the Rockets further towards a #2 seed and the Thunder into the risk of missing out on the playoffs? The eight points from Harden that opened a seven point lead mostly. While Harden was hitting everything he was putting up in the air, including two fall-back 3-pointers, Russell Westbrook mostly missed and was fouling players left and right. He is now just one technical foul away from a suspension. He’s following in Durant’s footsteps in more than just one way.

Dwight Howard had his best game since coming back from a long injury vacation. He scored 22 points in just 23 minutes, also grabbing 8 rebounds and enjoying complete freedom in the paint. Not that stopping Howard is easy on any day, but the pairing of Enes Kanter and Steven Adams continues to leak points in the paint at an alarming rate.

Finally, we’ll finish with Westbrook again. Yes, he’s a triple double machine and doing an incredible job of keeping the Thunder in the race. But he costs his teams so many points, with his bad shots (12-of-29 from the field), his turnovers (four this time, not too bad) and his lack of focus on defense on too many possessions. It’s not hating on him as Thunder fans love to point out, it’s simply valid criticism of a player who forces his team to take the bad with the good.

James Harden is pulling away not just with the number two seed and the scoring title, but also with votes in the MVP race. As impressive as Westbrook has been at times, his efforts within games are polarizing, let alone his body of work through an entire season. Harden isn’t the king of efficiency, but he has grown this season in almost every aspect in such a way that it’s impossible not to hand him the award at the end of this season.

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