By: Forrest Walker
James Harden and Russell Westbrook met at high noon to settle it once and for all. Two men, two teams, two playoff hunts stared each other down in Oklahoma and took their shot at each other. When the sun set on their showdown, both men had given it all, but only one would take away a win. James Harden's Rockets carried the day, even while Westbrook notched yet another triple double. There was no crushing victory for either man or either team, as the Thunder stayed close all game and very nearly snatched a victory while James Harden sat, fouled out. There was only a knock-down, drag-out fight that the Rockets wearily weathered. And we still don't know which man is the hero of this western.
Westbrook's line is a nightmare for his opponents: today he racked up 40 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists in his 11th triple double of the season. The Thunder are desperate for wins at this point, and Westbrook is keeping the ship afloat almost single-handedly while Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant watch from the sidelines. Thunder GM Sam Presti has done a fantastic job surrounding Westbrook with talent and depth, but that can only go so far. Today, the Houston Rockets pushed the Thunder just past their breaking point, with James Harden as the tip of that spear.
Harden's line wasn't as gaudy as Westbrook's triple double, but was just as valuable. His 41 points came on only 22 shots, as opposed to the 29 Westbrook needed for 40. The main difference in shooting was from three point range, where Harden's 6-9 blew away Westbrook's very respectable 4-11. James only notched 6 rebounds and 6 assists, but his 3 steals and 3 turnovers compared well to Westbrooks 0 steals and 4 turnovers. On balance, Westbrook's box score was probably a little better, and he didn't foul out with 33 seconds left like Harden did, but Harden was just as valuable to his team. It was Harden who threw daggers into the heart of OKC's late-game comeback run, after the thunder had pulled into a 100-point tie on a Westbrook three.
Dwight Howard also put in some work in this game, raiding his minutes cap and raising his production, too. He played 23 minutes, scoring 22 points in that time, mostly on alley-oops and putbacks. Apart from a few ill-conceived post-ups, Howard seems mostly willing to play in the role that many have sought for him: pick and roll master. He's one of the best roll men in the league, and his ability to finish at the rim off a cut is nearly unstoppable. He and Josh Smith showed off their chemistry, and when those two work together to take apart defenses, good things happen.
Both teams got into foul trouble early, and stayed there all game. Steven Adams and James Harden eventually fouled out, with one loss a bit sharper than the other. The whole game was intensely physical, and neither team shot well because of it. The Rockets continued their habit of missing open threes as well, coming in at a dismal 8-28 for 29%. Players other than harden shot a horrifying 2-19 from deep. The Rockets also made their own lives worse by missing 19 of their 50 free throws, many of which came from intentional fouls to put Joey Dorsey or Dwight Howard at the line.
Despite an ugly, free-throw riddled, beat-em-up game, the Rockets were able to hold on to a lead for most of the game. After an 18-0 run in the first quarter to gain a ten point lead, the Rockets never trailed again, and only tied for the briefest of moments in the waning minutes. The Thunder absolutely needed that win and played hard all game, but the Rockets responded and held on. Anthony Morrow in particular was a thorn in Houston's side, shooting 6-8 from deep, but it wasn't him that the Thunder ran a play for when they were down 3 with mere seconds to go. Instead, it was Westbrook who heaved a desperation three when he thought Corey Brewer fouled him. There was no whistle, and the game ended with a scrum for a loose ball.
The showdown at Oklahoma City ended as it began: two teams, locked in a fight to prove who's better once and for all. Nothing was resolved, and the fight only intensified. After the final play, Enes Kanter took exception to Trevor Ariza's rough box-out and got into it with Houston's premier wing defender. The two almost scuffled while Dwight Howard interceded and eventually cooler heads prevailed. There's no love lost between these teams, and they'll have another showdown eventually. But if the Thunder lose any more games, it might not be in the playoffs.