Stephen Curry was the perfect leader for a modern NBA offense — he can shoot off the dribble, he can catch-and-shoot, he has fantastic playmaking skills, he likes to play up-tempo, and he knows how to use his skills and gravity to draw defenders to get his teammates open looks. He did all that leading the Warriors to 67 wins.
James Harden led a team ravaged by injuries to 56 wins, the Southwest Division title and the No. 2 seed. He rolled downhill off the pick-and-roll all season, making plays when every team’s scouting report focused on stopping him and letting anyone else beat them. He was efficient, attacking the basket and drawing fouls, while also hitting threes.
In the end, Curry was voted the league MVP. James Harden came in second — and was hurt by that. Harden felt he did more to carry his team without the help Curry had from a deeper team.
Which leads to an interesting subplot in the Western Conference Finals:
Is Curry really more valuable than Harden?
This is not a battle that will be determined head-to-head, they will rarely be matched up on each other. (During the meetings in the regular season, Klay Thompson was the primary defender on Harden; Houston has to decide if Trevor Ariza guards Curry or Thompson, and which one Jason Terry tries to stay with.)
Curry vs. Harden will be a narrative for the series.
It’s hard to read much of anything into the regular season meetings of these teams — this is a very different Rockets team playing very different lineups — but if it’s instructive about how Curry and Harden play it will bolster Curry’s case. Curry averaged 25.8 points and shot a ridiculous 51.9 percent from three in the four meetings.
In their meetings this season, Harden averaged 25.3 points and hit 24.1 percent from three — below his season averages. Harden took fewer shots near the basket and more from the midrange than his season averages in those games. Plus, the Warriors have said their goal in this series is to keep Harden off the free throw line.
For the Rockets to win this series (or even get to a seventh game) Harden is going to have to be more efficient than he was in those four meetings. He’ll have more help — this Dwight Howard was not the one the Warriors saw, plus remember Harden sat for the dramatic Game 6 comeback — but Harden is going to have to put up big numbers efficiently against an elite defense if Houston is to advance.
Harden will have to prove his value.
Expect both men to make some spectacular plays, to lead their teams to strong stretches, to have their moments.
In the end, it is likely the Warriors win the series for the reason many thought Harden should have been MVP — Curry has a lot more talent around him.
But if Harden wants to change the MVP narrative, the stage is his.