Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.
King of the Court: James Harden
The Rockets’ 117–112 win over the Cavaliers at home Sunday night settled a few questions:
Would Cleveland crank up this season’s abysmal defense to face Houston’s divine touch from the 3-point line? (No.)
Could the Rockets really be a two-way team in the postseason? (Probably.)
Is this what ESPN thought it was getting when it had Warriors-Spurs on the schedule for Saturday? (Definitely.)
And does LeBron James deserve the MVP award over James Harden?
Even though no one — not you and me, not your fantasy league, not your Great Aunt Ruth, probably not even LeBron and Harden — agrees on the award’s criteria, the argument made for the King as MVP is the same every year: We witness LeBron, one of the greatest to ever do it, do it. And he is certainly doing it this year, playing nearly 38 minutes per game and averaging the most rebounds and assists of his career.
But Sunday’s game made a grand closing argument for Harden, who is playing the best season of his career. Just a year removed from a disagreeable and messy locker room, Dwight Howard, and having a beard longer than his defensive attention span, Harden has maximized this team’s ability by fine-tuning his own. Against Cleveland, all of that was on display: Harden driving, drawing fouls, drawing fouls while driving, hitting 3s, logging his 16th triple-double of the season, and simply outperforming his MVP-candidate counterpart.
He finished with 38 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds, a steal, a block, and 12 free throw attempts. (For what it’s worth, LeBron went to the line only three times.) Harden played nearly 40 minutes — the most of any Rocket — and finished the game a plus-23. No other player managed above even plus-five. But it was what the Rockets did as a team off-paper that pushed Houston ahead.
The Cavs shot better from the field and from deep, but the scrap and want of unheralded role players like Patrick Beverley and Nene won the categories measured by hustle — Beverley with the most loose-ball recoveries and the big man with a team high in deflections. In a game with two high-powered offenses, the team that secures the most possessions is generally the more successful team; Houston had an enormous 20-to-4 advantage on the offensive glass. The Rockets thrived off of second-chance points, points off turnovers, and fast-break opportunities, which made up 48 of their points compared with the Cavs’ 23. The defining sequence of the game came with two and a half minutes left. Nene laid the ball in, then forced a turnover on an errant LeBron pass, which turned into a Beverley 3-pointer that warded off Cleveland’s comeback. The sequence that told the Cavs’ story came just 20 seconds earlier, when Harden bustled through the lane basically uncontested.
LeBron will always be the King, but right now, the Beard might reign supreme.
Without any consequential potential outcome, realistic playoff hopes, or defense, the city of New York enjoyed some basketball on Sunday. Against the Knicks, Brooklyn gave the only appropriate appetizer for the shootout that would become Cavs-Rockets, draining a franchise-high 14 3-pointers during the first half.
Six Nets players made downtown their permanent address during the first half, but center Brook Lopez was the Brooklynite most focused on the outside shot, going 5-for-5 behind the arc in the first half and not even hitting a 2-point shot until the second. He finished with a team-high 25 points off six 3s, one short of his season high.
A byproduct of Kenny Atkinson’s new system in Brooklyn, which pushes players past the 3-point line, is how even the team’s traditional nonshooters are venturing out. Quincy Acy’s and Brook Lopez’s drastically inflated deep numbers highlight that. Last season, Lopez drained two 3-pointers. He beat that amount against New York by, oh, 300 percent, leading in attempts and makes on a team that shot 50 percent from deep. Acy went 3-for-3 to contribute to the record-breaking half, then finished the game perfect, 4-for-4. Not bad for a forward who doesn’t average a 3-pointer per game in his career. Atkinson’s encouragement of all positions to sling from deep also works well for Acy: Since joining the Nets in January, he’s shooting 56.5 percent from 3 on almost two and a half attempts per game.