Lead guards and ex-teammates Russell Westbrook and James Harden have put up unprecedented numbers and become two of the NBA’s biggest stories of the season so far. If only for that reason, Thursday’s matchup between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets registered as appointment television.
Thankfully, neither superstar disappointed. Harden finished two rebounds short of his fourth-straight triple-double and Westbrook scored throughout the night, finishing just shy of 50 points and with a career-high for 3-pointers. It was a tight game that went down to the final seconds, and both players did enough for their teams to win.
Yet it was Harden who ended up the hero. With the game tied 116-116, Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley rebounded a missed 3 by Westbrook to give the hosts a chance at a win with three seconds on the clock. Harden understandably took the ball to make a game-winning play, but he didn’t take the shot himself. Instead, he read the defense to fire a pass to the rolling Nene, who drew two defenders at the rim and got a controversial foul called on Jerami Grant:
Nene sinks both free throws after getting fouled.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) January 6, 2017
Replays showed that Grant got at least some ball, and it’s certain that plenty of referees let more contact go without a whistle in the final second. Whatever the case, the break went against OKC. Nene answered by making both free throws after going 4-of-8 from the stripe previously. Thunder rookie Alex Abrines could only offer a prayer of an inbound pass in the general direction of the basket after two timeouts, and the Rockets ended up with a well-earned 118-116 win.
The game-deciding foul call should prove a subject of discussion in the coming days, but the moment was more about Harden’s ability as a playmaker and his rapport with the Rockets’ role players. The NBA’s leading-assist man is far from a pure point guard, but he knows how to exploit space and get the ball to his teammates as well as most floor generals. His 12 assists (albeit with six turnovers) arguably meant more to the Rockets’ performance than his team-leading 26 points (6-of-16 FG, 12-of-14 FT).
Westbrook was at least as good, if not better. OKC’s maximalist leader put up 49 points (16-of-34 FG, 9-of-11 3FG) and set a new career high with eight 3-pointers (on 15 attempts). He also spearheaded an impressive second-half comeback from as many as 18 points down in the third and from a 14-point deficit to start the fourth.
The only reasonable knock on Westbrook was a familiar one. For all his ability to lead the Thunder, Westbrook regularly takes poor shots in the final minute. That happened twice on Thursday — he opted for a running bank-shot from a tough angle with 51 seconds left and stalled to hoist a contested pull-up three over Harden right before Houston’s winning possession. These complaints are a form of nit-picking when a guy scores 49 points, but they helped to decide the result.
However, the broadest perspective on Thursday’s matchup should focus not on who won, but how much fun it is to watch Harden and Westbrook lead two very good teams on a nightly basis. These players should start for the West in February’s All-Star Game — even if the fan vote says otherwise — and the only downside of that arrangement will be that they can’t both handle the ball at the same time. These players offer the two best shows in the NBA right now, and we were fortunate to see them on the same court in a very competitive contest.
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