Harden tops Westbrook in battle of NBA gladiators

Naveen Ganglani

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Harden tops Westbrook in battle of NBA gladiators
James Harden and Russell Westbrook - teammates yesterday, rivals today, and intertwined tomorrow - went to battle. The basketball was their iron swords.

NEW AGE RIVALS. Russell Westbrook and James Harden were once on the same team. Now they chase the same dream. Photo by Larry W. Smith/EPA

MANILA, Philippines – It was a tremendous sight to behold – the kind that makes staying up until the wee hours of the morning to watch NBA games in the Philippines worth every minute of missed sleep and every inch of black under one’s eyes.

On April 6, Monday (PH time), Russell Westbrook and James Harden played the role of hero against hero, each unwilling to succumb to the other; each absolute in their goal. 

Harden and Westbrook – teammates yesterday, rivals today, and intertwined tomorrow – went to battle. The basketball was their iron swords. The Chesapeake Arena in Oklahoma City was their arena. The many fans in attendance and millions watching at home were their witnesses. On one side is a guy methodical in his approach. On another, a competitor more fierce and head-on. 

As the dust settled, Harden put up 41 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, and 6 3-pointers. Westbrook? He turned in his 11th triple double of the season with 40 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds. 

Houston won, 115-112, but not before both guys put on a show to remember – the kind that’s typically reserved just for the playoffs. 

The bearded man in red used an array of hesitation moves, change of pace dribbles, and a variety of crossover dribbles to get to the rim repeatedly, earning countless of trips to the foul line for his 10th 40-point performance this season. When Oklahoma City’s defense loaded the paint, daring him to come and attack, he was more than willing to nail flat-footed 3-pointers after another; as if it was as simple as making a free throw. 

His rival took a different approach. Sure, he went to the free throw line 15 times and converted 12 shots, but most came off drives to the rim with reckless abandon. There were three guys guarding the paint, one of which was Dwight Howard. But that wasn’t a problem for Westbrook, whose fearlessness, though criticized many times in the past, kept his team within striking distance even as they trailed by double digits for most of the game.

But the beauty of both games’ wasn’t just their ability to produce points. If a teammate was open, Harden and Westbrook would get them the ball. In many ways, the performances of both are a mix of old and new school basketball, where spacing, ball movement, and three-point shooting are of most importance, but a franchise cornerstone – the best player on the team – leading the attack remains crucial in building a contender.

The stakes were different but just as high for both teams. Harden’s Rockets, no doubt contenders for the NBA title this year, were looking to secure a stronger grip on a top seed in the West. Westbrook’s Thunder, who miraculously remain in the playoff hunt despite the number of injuries they’ve suffered, needs every win from here on out to clinch the #8 seed. Both men had a mission for their respective teams, but only one would come out on top. 

After Westbrook rallied his squad from a 93-80 deficit and tied the match at 100-all, Harden went to work and strengthened his case for league MVP. First, it was a 3-pointer to break the tie. After, it was another in-your-face long-range bomb from the top of the key in front of Kyle Singler that silenced the OKC crowd. A few seconds later, Westbrook decided if Harden was to beat his team, it would have to be against him, mano-e-mano, and the Rockets star delivered with a beautiful fadeaway. 


Westbrook, who entered the game tied with Harden as the NBA’s best scorer at 27.5 PPG, hit a couple of 3-balls later on to keep his team in the hunt for a win and a chance to strengthen their bid for a playoff berth. Harden was disqualified thanks to a silly sixth foul, but he’d provided enough damage to build a threshold that his teammates retained to secure the win.

Steph Curry more than deserves MVP consideration. He’s the best player on the best team (63 wins) in the superior conference. But take Curry out of Golden State and they still have a line-up more than capable of contending for a postseason slot. Take away Harden from Houston (53-24) and they’re in the running for a lottery pick. Add the fact that Howard has played only 36 games this season and Harden is averaging 7 assists and 5.7 rebounds in addition to his scoring output and you have your NBA MVP.

After all, the name of the title is “Most Valuable Player.” There’s no doubting Curry’s importance to the Warriors; but Harden is more valuable to the Rockets than his main competition for the award is to his squad. Westbrook (27.5-8.6-7.2) also deserves consideration, but his team’s inferior 42-35 record takes him out of the running.

On Monday, Harden, 25, and Westbrook, 26, went to battle. This time, Harden one-upped his former comrade, but both are still in their primes and will have many more tremendous duels over the next few years, granted they stay healthy. And each time they go to work, we should feel fortunate to watch the present and future of the NBA put on a show to remember.


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