So long as we have a series that involves the likely top two vote getters in this season's NBA Most Valuable Player race, this is probably what the preamble for each "4 Winners, 4 Losers" post is going to turn into. But on Wednesday night, we were treated to Exhibit B in the case of Harden versus Westbrook, 2017 MVP race.
For three quarters, Westbrook was practically channeling Harden, peppering the Rockets defense with a lethal combination of midrange jump shots and savvy assists to open teammates. Still, the Thunder couldn't turn a 14-point first quarter lead into a runaway. They let the Rockets hang around, down just six at the half and at the end of three quarters, despite the Rockets' bringing their collective C- game.
Then, like a bizarro version of Teen Wolf (Teen Wolf actually MADE shots), Russell Westbrook forgot he had teammates, began chucking up bad jumper after bad jumper, and the fear that gripped every Rockets fan when Russ had the ball for most of the night turned into quizzical laughter, as the likely MVP clanked his way to a 4-for-18 fourth quarter. Meanwhile, James Harden came in with seven minutes to go in the game, scored seven points down the stretch and steered the ship into port.
Again, given their near identical raw stats — points, rebounds, assists per game — during the regular season, I come back to the fact that James runs a smoother ship than Russ. The maniacal chucker that Russ morphed into over the final ten minutes? I don't think that club exists in James's bag, thank God. Here's to two more lectures this week on why James Harden will get robbed of the MVP trophy.
To winners and losers we go...
4. Bench scoring
One of the biggest differences between this season's Rockets team and last season's is that, with Eric Gordon and Lou Williams as the catalysts for the second unit, they remain at least somewhat dangerous offensively in the 10 to 12 minutes that James Harden rests, and we saw that in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter, as each guy hit a monster three in the possessions right before Harden returned to the game. For the game, the two bench guys finished a combined 6 for 10 from downtown, and they were the fuel behind the +7 spark that took them from down six at the start of the fourth quarter to up one when Harden returned.
3. Patrick Beverley
The other seven points during that five-minute period of rest for Harden in the fourth quarter were scored by Beverley, whose offensive game has been just as valuable as his defense and grit in this series. For the second straight game, Bev was efficient (6-9 from the field, 2-4 from three) shooting the ball, and he drilled a monster three to give the Rockets a 109-104 lead that brought the house down. Harden is undeniably, by any objective or subjective assessment, the team's MVP, but Beverley has been his CLEAR No. 2 in this series.
2. John Wall
One quick hard left turn away from Rockets-Thunder for a moment. It's fun this time of year to see which star players are making a run at "The Leap," that metaphorical jump from a face in the crowd to a star that matters. This postseason, it is all setting up for Wall, whose 32 points and nine assists pushed the Wizards to a 2-0 lead over the Hawks. If the Wiz win this series, they're on track to play an eight seed (the Bulls) in the second round, and if they win that, they're in the conference finals, which would be a great start in stating their case as a possible team to take the torch from LeBron and the Cavs down the road. I thought this would be a pivotal postseason for Wall, and so far he's responded and the basketball gods are responding in kind with some good fortune.
1. James Harden
It actually was, overall, about a B or B- game for Harden, who was a lazy turnover machine in the first half of the game, and had a hard time finishing at the rim in the first half. In the end, though, Harden's numerous trips to the line (18-20 on free throws) made for a highly efficient 35 points on 17 field goal attempts. The postseason is about to get fun if Harden can go close out the Thunder and Westbrook on his former home floor this weekend.
4. Ryan Anderson
Before the series, I listed Anderson as one of my keys to the series for the Rockets, since he is the closest thing to a three-point shooting specialist the team has. On the one hand, the Rockets should feel pretty good that they have a 2-0 lead with Anderson having shot 0-11 from downtown over the first two games. On the other hand, Anderson is going to need to make shots in Oklahoma City this weekend. The Rockets can't count on outlier occurrences like super-efficient Beverley games and 40+ point games from the Gordon/Williams duo.
3. Rockets on the glass
The biggest difference between Games 1 and 2, and the key reason this was only a four-point win, not a 31-point win, was the Thunder's relentlessness on the offensive glass. Of the Thunder's 31 rebounds, 17 were offensive, led by Andre Roberson with seven of those. Some of the issues in this area were due to a lack of effort, especially in the first half, but the Thunder do have a decided size advantage on the Rockets and it showed at times on Wednesday night. If the Rockets shoot well at the other end, they can get away with giving up some second shots, but when they're missing shots, their margin for error on the glass is minuscule. That's why their 56-41 win on the glass in Game 1 was so huge.
2. Russell Westbrook
I've said what I need to say about Russ in the preamble to this post. Get wrapped up in 51 points on 43 shots, if you so choose. That's cool. If your goal is watching guys get triple doubles and you choose to ignore context (and, um, the SCOREBOARD), that is your right. Me? I'll take the W.
1. ESPN's social media staff
Yes, I'm looking right at you, ESPN...
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The most points in Thunder postseason history. pic.twitter.com/zvAKCORdeK— ESPN (@espn) April 20, 2017
Brodie just dropped the most points in a triple-double in NBA playoff history. pic.twitter.com/8w8ys8zxWh— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 20, 2017
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.