The NBA’s Western Conference finals – aka, the MVP vs. the runner-up – is off to a scintillating start. And, thankfully, more folks on this coast will get to see games end, as weeknight contests in California tip-off 90 minutes earlier than in previous rounds.
Top-seeded Golden State and No. 2-seed Houston lived up to the billing Monday as the Warriors hung on for a 110-106 victory. The Rockets led by 16 points in the second quarter before Golden State stormed back with a small-ball lineup led by reserve point guard (and former Wizard) Shaun Livingstone.
But the biggest stars were the luminaries everyone focused on, Steph Curry and James Harden. It was Curry’s opportunity to prove he really is more valuable than Harden.
Given a vote, my ballot would’ve read 1) Harden and 2) Curry. That said, it’s impossible to mount a strenuous argument that Curry was unworthy of the honor.
The race is over and but neither man did anything in Game 1 to cause second thoughts.
Harden messed around and nearly had a triple-double, finishing with 28 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. He began as a diistributor (eight assists in the first half) and ended as a cashier (21 points in the second half). His step-back jumper with 5:28 remaining produced the game’s final tie at 97-all.
The MVP took over from there, scoring the Warriors’ last nine points, including a ridiculous pull-up 3-pointer (that later drew him a fine for flopping on a no-call foul). Curry was 6-for-11 from behind the arc and finished with a game-high 34 points.
Warriors 1-0; Curry 1-0.
“It’s entertaining basketball,” Curry said of the Harden matchup in a postgame news conference. “But we’re both supposed to help our team win and do what we can to impact the game. There’s going to be stretches where he plays well and obviously he did that for his team in the third quarter, to really keep them close and keep them in it.
“He made some crazy plays that we defended well and we’ll live with those shots. Hopefully we both have a big impact and that’s what we’re supposed to do.”
While the Atlanta Hawks go against the league’s biggest superstar, trying to prove they don’t need one to reach the finals, Curry and Harden are the exceptional singular talents who drive ticket sales and TV ratings. When all else fails, teammates give them the ball and watch them go to work.
Each player would double his scoring average if degree-of-difficulty points were counted. Curry routinely puts defenders on skates. On the other end, Klay Thompson often was close enough to need breath mints, yet Harden still found the bottom of the net.
“You bet on the fact the more tough shots he has to take and the harder it is get into his spots that you hopefully wear him down over the course of a game,” Curry said. “He’s a great player that’s going to make great plays. You’re defending him well and making him work. You just don’t want to give him easy baskets.”
They all look easy for Harden when he starts cooking, and for Curry when he launches with his nanosecond release. They rarely face each other but the series still has a one-on-one feel. The only difference is Curry has a much better supporting cast.
That’s one reason I thought Harden should’ve won the MVP, but I digress.
Houston’s epic comeback against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals occurred with an ailing Harden on the bench, but the Warriors will gladly take their chances against anyone else. His teammates will have plenty of opportunities to chip in.
“He’s going to have to be a playmaker,” Houston coach Kevin McHale said of Harden.
That hasn’t been a problem thus far, as Harden averaged a career-high seven assists during the regular season and has upped it to 8.1 in the playoffs. Likewise, Curry has raised the level of his game, too, going from 23.8 points per game in the regular season to 28.7 in the postseason.
Curry is always one shot from catching fire.
“One of the reasons that we’re reluctant to take timeouts is because we feel like we want to keep the pace going,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We feel like Steph at any moment can come down and hit three threes in a row, so we’d rather let the game go.
“This is the kind of season he’s had. It’s the kind of career he’s putting together. He’s an incredibly skilled player. He’s fearless. At any moment he can let loose.”
It’s Babyface vs. The Beard in an MVP recount.
The finals won’t have anything on this.