The first round series between the Thunder and the Rockets was set up to be a referendum on the Most Valuable Player Award debate centered around Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Westbrook, absent Kevin Durant, went on a one-man vengeance tour this season, a triple-double machine hell bent on single-handedly carrying the Thunder to the playoffs. Harden, meanwhile, was a maestro as the point guard of the Rockets, unleashed in Mike D'Antoni's offensive system as Houston built the perfect three-point shooting, analytics-friendly roster around its superstar. Westbrook's approach to dominating the competition was overwhelming. Harden's was quieter, but more effective. The contrast of styles has been on display in the first two games of this series, where the Rockets have won both to take a 2-0 lead into Oklahoma City for Game 3 on Friday.
If this series has settled any debates so far, it's this: Harden is the better player to build a playoff team around, and the Rockets have a much better supporting cast than the Thunder for their superstar. After finishing the regular season with a single-season record 42 triple-doubles, Westbrook scored 51 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and had 13 assists in Wednesday's 115-111 loss. His stat line grabbed all the headlines (even if he didn't care for it afterwards), but the Thunder have lost both games in these playoffs, thanks to Harden's efficiency and Houston's depth.
The fourth quarter of Game 2 illustrated the difference between the two teams and their two stars. Westbrook played all 12 minutes and took 18 shots in the quarter, making four, including just 1-for-7 from three-point range. The only other Thunder player who attempted more than two shots in the quarter was Andre Roberson, and nobody other than Westbrook scored more than three points. If there was a debate on whether Westbrook should have forced so many shots in the fourth, the counterargument is this: while his vision on the floor narrowed in the final 12 minutes and Westbrook stopped looking for his teammates, he's also had so many late-game heroics with his one-man hero ball show this year that it's hard to see him playing any other way for the Thunder to win.
Meanwhile, Harden scored seven points in his seven minutes in the period, while teammates Patrick Beverley (eight points) and Eric Gordon (11 points) hit key shots late in the game to help the Rockets come back to take Game 2. This has been the theme of the series so far. The Rockets have five other players other than Harden averaging double-figures in scoring in the series so far. Beverley has imposed himself physically on Westbrook and frustrated him on numerous occasions, while hitting huge shots in each of the first two wins. Lou Williams -- who arrived in a midseason trade from the Los Angeles Lakers -- provided a spark in Wednesday's win. Gordon has provided secondary scoring, while Nene and Clint Capela have found easy baskets at the rim running the pick-and-roll with Harden.
Meanwhile, Westbrook's supporting cast has provided little help. Only Roberson is averaging double-figures in scoring so far. Enes Kanter and Steven Adams have been ineffective, and have not given the Thunder the edge they sought in the paint and on the glass. Victor Oladipo, brought in as the second scorer behind Westbrook, is averaging just 8.5 points in the series and has made just 5-for-26 shots. The Thunder don't have replacement level players as Westbrook's teammates, even if his individual brilliance reduces them to just standing on the floor and waiting to play defense so they can hand the ball off to their point guard, but it's also not a core group with enough playmaking and shotmaking ability where the Thunder have many options to win outside of Westbrook having an incredible game. Even when he did on Wednesday, it was not enough.
But make no mistake, Harden has been outplaying Westbrook. Both players are averaging 36.5 points so far, but Harden's efficiency has won out against Westbrook's bulldozing approach to winning. Harden has scored his 72 points on 45 field goal attempts. He's gone to the free throw line 31 times, and is a +24 on the floor, shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three. He's facilitated for his teammates, continued to master the art of drawing contact on the perimeter and on drives to get himself to the foul line, and has continued to orchestrate one of the best offenses in the league, as he did during the regular season.
On the other hand, Westbrook has needed 66 field goal attempts to get his 73 points. He's gone to the free throw line 26 times, but the shooting percentages are a glaring problem. Westbrook is making 34.8 percent of his shots from the field, even worse, he's 5 for 22 (22.7 percent) from three. The Thunder might have thrown their best punch in Game 2. They had a chance to square the series, they led in the second half, but they only have one way to win: rely on Westbrook to make heroic shots in the fourth. That equation worked out in the regular season to the tune of 47 wins. In the postseason, it has left the Thunder exposed against an efficient offense in Houston.
Once teammates, Westbrook and Harden's styles cannot be anymore different. You can see the rough edges around Westbrook's game, but you accept them for the results. Harden is an artist on the floor, knowing where teammates will be on the perimeter when he drives, finding the right spots to draw fouls against the competition, and most of all, feasting on three-point attempts, free throws and shot attempts at the rim as the most efficient scorer in the league. That efficiency has won out in the first two games, and while everyone has their own argument for the MVP debate, Harden is halfway towards settling another debate: that the Rockets have one of a handful of franchise players that you can build a championship contender around.