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Thunder's Westbrook focused on playoffs, not historic season

18 April 2017

This season in the National Basketball Association has led to one of the tightest MVP races in recent memory with four candidates and fierce debate over the two favorites, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The first-round matchup between the number three seed Rockets and sixth-seeded Thunder will have no bearing on the MVP trophy but will be yet another talking point in the raging discussion.

Not only did Westbrook become the second player in history to average a triple-double for an entire season, but he also broke Oscar Robertson's record for most triple-doubles in one season at 42. He probably has the ideal wardrobe selection if he actually gets the writers' vote, and there's little doubt he'll throw shade West if he gets the chance.

One of the Thunder's biggest weaknesses this season has been their performances against teams who are in the bottom half of each respective conference.

Harden was just 1.9 rebounds per game shy of a triple double himself, averaging 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and a league-best 11.2 assists. There are usually multiple players who could make a strong case for being deserving of the award.

He had the numbers to prove it, finishing fourth in the league in scoring (28.0), seventh in rebounding (11.8) and second in blocked shots (2.2). If the Thunder can't slow the Rockets' second-ranked offense, Westbrook will need to better than ever. In hindsight it will look foolish if it goes to Harden, even though outside of that one milestone Harden is every bit as good, and as valuable if not more to his team.

The Thunder certainly can't be counted out, given the way Westbrook has carried them all season long.

James Harden " The Beard" is getting more of the "winning record" love that perhaps would have gone to the aforementioned Durant if the Golden State Warriors forward wouldn't have potentially split the vote with Stephen Curry. Markieff Morris, 448 regular-season games. Houston won three of four meetings between the teams this season, despite Westbrook producing these extraordinary averages: 36.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 9.3 assists. Is it Harden? Is it Westbrook?

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While everyone must wait more than two months for the NBA's MVP to be announced, the league will showcase the two front-runners for the honor in James Harden and Russell Westbrook when the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder open a first-round playoff series Sunday night.

It's Harden's flawless passes to the Rockets shooters coming out of pick-and-rolls with Clint Capela and Nene that have been so lethal, and credit D'Antoni's masterful offensive system for that.

The point guard was tipped for the MVP award during preseason, but at the same time, several people suggested that OKC may even struggle to reach the playoffs. In each game during the regular season, Westbrook outscored Harden. LeBron can say that, but the East is a more shallow conference. Each of those men was drafted between two years (Joe Johnson) to five years (Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter and Paul Pierce) before him. The OKC Thunder have been a decent team, not as good as when Durant was playing, but good enough.

They have two wins against the Boston Celtics, as well as a victory against the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers. Voters won't forgive him for the champs' 20-21 road record or the sub-.500 record since mid-February.

Some things to know about the Thunder-Rockets series.

Harden emerged as an MVP candidate, leading the Rockets to a league-high 117 points per game since the start of December.

What did the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year do? Get ready. This will be the new "Houston, you have a problem". In the West, it's seventh-seeded Memphis at No. 2 San Antonio, and the No. 4 Clippers against the No. 5 Utah Jazz.