With James Harden building his MVP case, are the Rockets the West's best?

HOUSTON – James Harden is well past the point where he needs to one-up an opposing star sharing the marquee to build up his name, or back up his bravado by what happens in one game. What Harden accomplished Sunday against LeBron James and the wobbly-legged Cleveland Cavaliers wasn’t going to solidify or dissolve his MVP case.

The responsibility Harden has taken in normalizing mind-numbing numbers and elevating the Houston Rockets back into a contender has served all season as his greatest ally. But there certainly was no harm in leading the Rockets to a much-needed 117-112 win at Toyota Center while posting the kind of effortless-looking triple-double that has become the norm – all with the active leader in Maurice Podoloff trophies and the defending champs in his building.

“Everything that he’s doing is just remarkable,” Rockets forward Trevor Ariza told The Vertical after Harden recorded his 16th triple-double of the season with 38 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. “He’s scoring at will. He’s getting his teammates involved. He’s rebounding the ball like a big man. He’s doing everything and not only that, his team is winning. We have a chance to compete for a championship. What he’s doing, I don’t think I’ve personally seen it – live – seen a person play the way he’s playing.”

The Rockets' James Harden goes up for a layup Sunday night against the Cavs. (AP)
The Rockets' James Harden goes up for a layup Sunday night against the Cavs. (AP)

James has reached a stage in his career – like Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jordan before him – in which his consistent brilliance gets overlooked and goes unappreciated in the regular season. Though almost universally regarded as the game’s best player, James has not only failed to win an MVP award since 2013, he hasn’t finished second since 2014. This season, Harden, Russell Westbrook and, more recently, Kawhi Leonard have generated most of the individual acclaim, while James has his team atop the Eastern Conference despite being without All-Star Kevin Love for nearly a month.

Harden was the best player on the floor in a closely contested individual duel with James (30 points, eight turnovers, seven rebounds and five assists). He also got chippy with Kyrie Irving and Euro-stepped the snot out of Tristan Thompson. Ariza believes that, much like James, aspects of Harden’s play in recent years have been taken for granted. The NBA might be entering something like a “juiced-ball era” in which star players routinely post triple-doubles, while also scoring 40 or 50 points. But coach Mike D’Antoni’s MVP-approved offense didn’t just prop up Harden; he’s been here before.

“He’s doing it again,” Ariza told The Vertical. “He had an MVP season – we thought – when [Stephen] Curry won it the first time [in 2015]. But he’s taken that sting and he’s come back – just ridiculous. He’s just playing, saying, ‘It’s not about me, it’s about us.’ And he understands that.”

There will be times the rest of the season when Harden is on the wrong end of a Leonard (or Gordon Hayward) chase-down block, but Sunday was his turn to face up Irving and stuff a pull-up jumper – holding off jokes on the silent “d” in his last name for at least a few days. Ariza wasn’t aware Harden had another methodical, smooth-jazz triple-double during the game but that has happened several times this season. “You look up there or look at the stat sheet and see he had a triple-double like, ‘Damn, he’s really out here doing this,'” Ariza told The Vertical, “and he’s just playing his regular game. It’s crazy.”

The Rockets have fancied themselves a title contender for much of this season, with Harden, D’Antoni and even Sixth Man of the Year candidate Eric Gordon in the midst of redemptive, y’all-must-have-forgot campaigns. But that talk could easily be dismissed considering the Rockets’ – and D’Antoni’s – style of play has remained unproven in June. Also, Houston isn’t far enough removed from the miserable, bickering season that most of the players, including Ariza, have tried to forget.

Firmly locked into the third seed in the Western Conference with 15 games remaining, the Rockets have one advantage over the teams currently ahead of them in the standings – they are whole. Golden State remains a regular-season marvel but has hit its first slump in three years, with mental and emotional fatigue setting in following the loss of Kevin Durant for at least the remainder of this month. San Antonio has been hit with the sobering development of LaMarcus Aldridge’s minor heart arrhythmia and Kawhi Leonard’s recovery from a concussion. Houston can’t get too far ahead of itself, because injuries and unfortunate setbacks could affect any team and any moment. Also, the current concerns facing the Warriors and Spurs could easily be resolved when the Rockets face one or both in the postseason.

There are several reasons not to go overboard with Sunday’s victory: The Cavaliers were playing their 12th game without their best defensive rebounder in Love and were on the second end of a back-to-back in which they traveled from Orlando during daylight savings. But the win helped Houston complete a trifecta, with wins against the three teams that have been favored to win it all – Golden State, San Antonio and Cleveland. It also served as reminder that the fun-and-gun Rockets could grind out the type of game that has been giving them trouble of late.

“We’ve proven it, but it’s been awhile,” Harden said of the Rockets’ status as a contender. “We’re all in a good place right now, and we’re here for each other. Just ride this momentum and get to the postseason.”

The Rockets were noticeably subdued with the outcome of Sunday’s game in the locker room afterward. On-court antagonist-in-chief Patrick Beverley was borderline incredulous after a series of questions about the importance of defeating the Cavaliers. “We’re not really worried about who we’re playing. I feel like other teams are worried about us,” Beverley said. “It’s just one game. We don’t get a trophy for this game. We don’t do anything special for this game. It’s no parade for this game. It’s just one game.”

Beverley was also asked about the influence the win over Cleveland would have on MVP voting if Harden goes on to claim the award for the first time: “If? Why’d you say, ‘If?’ When! When he wins MVP. … He’s been MVP all year, he’s been leading us. Just like any other game, he played well.”

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