They didn’t have to guard each other for it to feel like a personal duel between Stephen Curry and James Harden. Sharing the same court was more than enough to turn Game 1 of the Western Conference finals into a referendum on the 2014-15 NBA Most Valuable Player award and for the outcome to validate Curry as the trophy’s recipient. It’s the 22nd time the MVP winner and runner-up have met in a playoff series, and this game turned into a microcosm of the season. Harden had the superior stats and did an admirable job keeping his team in contention while playing half of the time without injured teammate Dwight Howard, but Curry had the plays that stuck in your mind and his team had the victory.
What they both did was deliver. They made their cases, made it easy to tell advocates for either side: “Yeah, I see your point.” Harden began with four assists in the first quarter, Curry made four of his first six shots. Harden scored 21 points in the second half, 28 for the game, and nearly had a triple-double with 11 rebounds and nine assists, forcing the Golden State Warriors to hold on until the last minute for their 110-106 victory over the Houston Rockets. Curry made 6 of 11 3-pointers to propel him to 34 points, with six rebounds and five assists. So even though Curry didn’t take a shot against Harden, and Harden fired off only one against Curry, this was very much a back-and-forth between the two. It was great theater, getting off to a much better start than the Rockets-Clippers series, and providing a rare delivery of a superstar matchup that lived up to the hype.
“It’s entertaining basketball, but we’re both supposed to help our team win and do what we can to impact the game,” Curry said. “It’s a lot more fun to watch Steph do it than James,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said with a smile that acknowledged his obviously biased perspective. Neutral observers would feel the same way. There’s a drudgery to Harden’s game when he’s at his best, because when he’s most effective is when he draws fouls and lives at the free-throw line. Harden topped the 40-point mark nine times this season, and made a total of 134 free throws in the process. Curry had only three games of 40-plus points — but he never needed double-digit free throws in any of them, and made only 20 free throws total in the three. Voting Curry for MVP might has been as much about aesthetics as it was about his team’s 67 victories. Curry’s style isn’t just what we think basketball is becoming, it’s about what we’d like basketball to be: a breathtaking display of skills, with some audacity mixed in. Curry is a better fit for the Vine highlight age, preferably with the sound turned up to hear the ball rip through the net.
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