OAKLAND, Calif. – Dwight Howard spent much of the final quarter of the Western Conference finals opener sitting on the bench with a knee injury. If nothing else, it gave him a good view of the battle between Houston Rockets guard James Harden and the Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry.
"Well, you got two chefs going at it and we can see who will make the best dish," Howard said.
Curry had the right recipe on Tuesday night by leading the Warriors to a 110-106 win in Game 1.
Curry's biggest challenger for the NBA's Most Valuable Player award was Harden, and neither player disappointed in Game 1. Curry finished with a game-high 34 points and made six 3-pointers in 39 minutes. Harden was also spectacular, nearly posting a triple-double with 28 points, a playoff-career-high 11 rebounds and nine assists.
"It's entertaining basketball, but we're both supposed to help our team win and do what we can to impact the game," Curry said.
Harden believed he should have won the MVP award and several other stars such as Kobe Bryant shared that belief. Curry, however, was the resounding winner, totaling 1,198 points, including 100 of 130 first-place votes from a panel of 129 media members and one fan. Harden was a distant second with 936 points and 25 first-place votes.
Curry said that Harden's play helped push him this season.
"I watch everybody in the league, and you know who's playing well and the stories that are going on during the course of the season," Curry said. "So I definitely was impressed with everything that he was doing, the numbers that he was putting up, the way he was helping his team win games, and obviously there are other guys in that kind of pool that were so consistent over the course of the season.
"I was just appreciative to be in that group and keep showing up every night and trying to do what I can to help my team win and hopefully playing well every night. I didn't know what to expect with the whole voting thing. You hear talk back and forth and I try to stay focused on what I can control, but obviously it was a huge honor to win the award and to know that there were so many people that voted for me."
Before the West finals began, Harden said the Rockets were not respected enough – and that the Warriors were all the talk.
The Warriors swept the Rockets in four games during the regular season, winning every game by double-digits. Golden State fought through a gritty second-round series against the tough Memphis Grizzlies. The Rockets fought back from a 3-1 deficit, including being down 19 points in Game 6 on the road, to knock off the Los Angeles Clippers.
Harden and the underdog Rockets, however, did put a scare into the Warriors in Game 1. Harden was the big reason why.
Harden only had seven points at halftime as the Warriors overcame a 16-point deficit to take a 58-55 lead. But he started heating up in the third quarter, making four of his five shots for 11 points.
"That's just kind of my game, kind of getting a feel for the game," Harden said about heating up in the second half. "It's Game 1, so just kind of getting a feel for it and just making the right passes, easy passes, taking my shot and taking lanes when I had opportunities."
Said Curry: "There's going to be stretches where he plays well, and obviously he did in the third quarter."
With Howard out with a knee injury for most of the fourth quarter, the Warriors tried to slow Harden by double-teaming him. Harden had 10 points and two assists in the fourth quarter while the rest of the Rockets scored 17. Houston trimmed an 11-point deficit to 108-106 with 14. 6 seconds left.
Curry, however, added 11 points in the fourth quarter and sealed the win with two late free throws.
"We've done a great job of letting games go," Harden said. "Game 1 slipped from us."
Curry said he and Harden have not had a chance to talk about their individual competition this season. With no MVP award and no wins against the Warriors yet this season in five tries, Harden probably isn't ready to have that conversation anyway.
"We're both trying to help our team win and do it our individual ways," Curry said. "It's a great competitive environment, and obviously we don't guard each other very much, but when you're out there you kind of get riled up with the back and forth that might happen, like tonight, or just the will to want to win the game even more because you know how great of a player he is and what it takes to beat a team like Houston with a guy like James."