At the end, they embraced. After spending so much of the evening jostling for position and searching for daylight, James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder, two players in perpetual motion, finally stood still long enough to hug each other. It was a sign of mutual respect between former teammates.
“He’s a problem, man,” Harden told David Aldridge of TNT after the game. “He never gives up, never quits.”
The Rockets had outlasted the Thunder for a 118-116 victory at Toyota Center in Houston on Thursday night — a game that once again showcased the dynamic offense that these two players, both leading M.V.P. candidates, have produced this season. Westbrook finished with 49 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists, while Harden collected 26 points, 8 rebounds and 12 assists as the Rockets (28-9) won their sixth straight.
Perhaps the only surprise was that neither player had a triple-double, but such is the high bar they have set for themselves. Westbrook has 16 triple-doubles this season. Harden has nine, and he is less than week removed from assembling one of the most ridiculous stat lines in league history: 53 points, 17 assists and 16 rebounds in a win against the Knicks last Saturday.
Harden was less explosive against the Thunder — he shot just 6 of 16 from the field — but was a pass-first facilitator for his teammates throughout, and especially on the one possession when it mattered most. With little time remaining in a tie game, Harden felt two defenders converge on him near the 3-point line. So he threw a dart to teammate Nene Hilario, who was fouled with seven-tenths of a second remaining. Hilario made both free throws, and the Rockets emerged victorious — despite having given up an 18-point lead.
“No matter if it’s fourth quarter with 3 seconds to go or first quarter with 10 minutes to go, I’m going to make that pass,” Harden told reporters. “And my teammates know that.”
Harden and Westbrook, who were teammates on the Thunder for three seasons, from 2009 to 2012, now personify the sort of plutonium-fueled offenses favored by many of the league’s elite teams: lots of transition opportunities, lots of 3-pointers, lots of points.
Scoring across the league is up this season — ESPN’s Zach Lowe detailed many of the factors — and one of the central figures in the movement, Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni, had a courtside seat for Thursday’s game.
In hindsight, D’Antoni was ahead of the curve when, as coach of the Phoenix Suns from 2003 to 2008, he had his players run at every opportunity. In later coaching stops with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Knicks, he had far less success. But with the Rockets this season, he got another opportunity. He has made the most of it.
If the first half of the Rockets’ season is viewed as a referendum of D’Antoni’s offensive philosophies, well, it is difficult to see how they could be playing much better. On pace to demolish the league record for 3-pointers in a season, the Rockets are second in scoring behind the Golden State Warriors.
More than just scoring in bunches, though, the Rockets are winning with balance and efficiency. Consider their effort against the Thunder (21-16). All five starters scored at least 10 points, and Eric Gordon, who is leading the league in 3-pointers this season, came off the bench to score 22 points.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys who can make a lot of shots,” D’Antoni told reporters.
The Thunder, meanwhile, were highly reliant on Westbrook, who was outstanding and sank a career-best eight 3-pointers. But he also attempted 34 of his team’s 91 shots.
Without Kevin Durant, who left for the Golden State Warriors last summer, Westbrook has been carrying an almost impossible load for the Thunder this season. On Thursday, he seemed fully capable of pulling off another feat — at least until Harden found a teammate for the winning play.