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James Harden and Russell Westbrook Deliver Memorable Easter Game

By Tamberlyn Richardson
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I joked in the pregame that James Harden has become the darling of ABC TV given they’ve featured Houston in 5 Sunday games dating back to March 1st (and every Sunday since March 1st Houston have been scheduled to play on a Sunday). Yet based on the performances he produces in these match-ups it’s easy to understand why!

115. 169. 112. 149.

The MVP Candidates Deliver:

Talk about a premiere match-up …the showdown between James Harden and Russell Westbrook was spectacular. While the children were searching for eggs the Easter Bunny hid, the adults got our own special treat with these two MVP candidates.

Each player was the catalyst for their team with the Beard stepping up to pull the Rockets ahead each time the Thunder threatened to take the lead. For his part Westbrook did it all which his eleventh triple-double attests to.

Top Performers:

James Harden: 41 Points, 6 Rebounds, 6 Assists, 3 Steals 6 of 9 from behind the arc, tenth 40 point game of season

Russell Westbrook: 40 Points, 11 Rebounds, 13 Assists (11th triple-double this season)

The Game:

Oklahoma City, or rather Westbrook jumped on the Rockets scoring 10 of the Thunder’s first 12 points and had OKC up 10-3 initially. But, then Houston went on a run of nine straight points beginning with a Harden 3-pointer followed by 3 consecutive lobs at the basket capped by a half court pass-lob by Harden to Howard under the basket.

What was clear early was though Enes Kanter has added a low post scoring threat for the Thunder he is possibly the worst defender at his position in the NBA! That may sound strange given he had 9 rebounds by the half, but the Rockets scored at will against him. Further the foul trouble Steven Adams and Mitch McGary were saddled with (Adams had four in 9 minutes and McGary five in 10 minutes) was mostly due to over helping because Kanter just doesn’t cover his man or protect the paint.

Arguably this points to how much Serge Ibaka is missed more than the ineptness of Kanter on defense.  Regardless the home work for Kanter this summer if OKC wishes to bring him back will definitely be defensive based with an emphasis on rim protection and defensive slides.

While it looked like the Rockets were going to thrash the Thunder the energy of Dion Waiters spurred the Thunder to pull within 5 points prior to James Harden hitting a pull up dagger 3 to push the lead back to 8 for the half.

For his part other than Waiters it felt like without Westbrook this game would have been over by the end of the first quarter. To wit, with the Rockets up 13 at 5:21 of the second quarter check out the series of plays that cut the lead to 5:

  • Waiters steals the ball from Corey Brewer leading to a fast break and Westbrook dunk
  • very next possession Harden turns the ball over leading to another break out by Westbrook and another dunk
  • out of the subsequent Houston time-out Westbrook defended Harden forcing him into a tough shot (which he missed)
  • 2 offensive possessions later Westbrook grabbed the rebound and went the length of the court scoring in the post
  • 2 possessions later Westbrook assisted on a Kanter 2
  • 3 possessions later ditto to the above
  • next possession Westbrook drove the center of the paint and assisted on a Morrow three
  • subsequent possession Westbrook assisted on a Augustin three cutting the lead to 5

Despite all that effort Harden hit the three to put the Rockets up by 8 at the Half.

Entering the lockers at half time the two teams’ stars who consequently are the top 2 scorers in the league were leading their teams in scoring. Harden had 17 points on 6 of 12 and Westbrook had 18 points on 7 of 11.

The second half was more of the same with Harden consistently scoring every time the Thunder threatened to get back in the game. Westbrook’s will to win is on constant display as he finally tied the game at 100 with less than 3 minutes remaining. Harden’s response was to go on a personal 8 point run to put Houston back up by 7.

Westbrook countered by first fouling Howard who missed both free throws and brought the ball up court, hit his own 3 to cut the lead to 4.  His next move was brilliant as he drove the ball right at Harden to send him packing to the sidelines with his 6th foul (just the 2nd time this season he fouled out of a game). Unfortunately Westbrook failed to capitalize on the trip to the line missing both free throws.

While OKC began to foul Rockets players to extend the game Westbrook once again hit a three to cut the lead to 3 with 25 seconds remaining.  Once again Houston delivered on their free throws and were lucky as Westbrook almost intercepted a pass by Smith to Ariza up court. With the lead 115-112 OKC had one final opportunity to tie but Westbrook’s final attempt was off the mark.

The game ended with Kanter and Ariza in a scuffle under the basket, but it was mostly frustration on display.

ESPN MVP Poll:

ESPN had a poll asking fans to submit who the MVP should be:

Half Time:

  • Harden led with 39%
  • Steph Curry was second with 33%
  • Westbrook was third with 15%
  • LeBron James ranked fourth with 13%.

By half time of the second game (Bulls vs. Cav’s)

  • Harden had improved to 45%
  • Curry remained at 33%
  • Westbrook dropped to 13%
  • James dropped to 9%

(so much for Jalen Rose’s speculation Harden’s numbers were higher initially because we were watching him play)

Other Stand Outs:

  • Howard delivered a workman-like performance posting 22 points on 10 of 15,  8 rebounds and 2 steals in 23 minutes
  • Trevor Ariza was one rebound shy of a double-double posting 12 points and 9 rebounds. While the stat sheet doesn’t show it, his defense was key to the Rockets’ win.
  • The Rockets defense produced 14 steals (to OKC’s 4)
  • Houston limited their turnovers to 10 (that’s a big improvement from their 29th rank average of 16.7 per game) and they forced OKC into 18.
  • The Rockets won both points in the paint (54-42) and fast break points (26 – 23)
  • Houston shot 46.9% and held OKC to 43.5%
  • OKC did win some key categories: rebounds: 51-42, assists: 21-18 and held Houston to 28.6% from thee while shooting 46.7%

What To Take Away:

  •  Several things to be optimistic about regarding Dwight Howard. He scored easily while giving a master class to young upstarts Mitch McGary and Steven Adams on positional prowess. With his minute limitation increasing from 20 to 24 per game that also points to signs that a) he’s feeling good and b) the Rockets want to gradually increase his time on the court in preparation for the playoffs. All very positive signs for the big man.
  • Houston have languished all season with a patchwork front court consisting mostly of Joey Dorsey, Donatas Motiejunas and Josh Smith, but the return of Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones coupled with sudden improvement of rookie Clint Capela (and impending return of DeMo) translates into their healthiest and most diverse front court all season!
  • Watching Westbrook garner his eleventh triple-double of the season and seeing how hard he has to work for the Thunder to even compete puts into perspective exactly how stellar Harden has been this season. While Westbrook took several hard knocks and competed like a warrior he looks exhausted. Granted he still plays every possession like his life depends on it. In contrast Harden doesn’t actually look tired, rather he looks just as strong as he did to start the season. That has to speak to the quality of the roster Morey has surrounded Harden with and the strategy coach Kevin McHale has employed to keep Harden relatively fresh.
  • At times during the game the Thunder employed the hack-a-Dorsey strategy which pinpoints the need for Houston to bring in a shooting specialist to work with members of the Rockets roster. The fact Howard, Dorsey, Smith and Capela all struggle with free throw shooting highlights the need to spend some money to improve this deficiency. Mark my words if Houston doesn’t do something heading to the post season we’ll be discussing how the Rockets lost a playoff game because of  free throws!
  • The win by Houston gives them some breathing room over the teams chasing them for the second seed and division title especially with Memphis losing to Washington Saturday night.

Next: Ranking the MVP Candidates

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