The MVP race is slowing down, and it’s time to look at the best games from each of the four candidates.
Between Russell Westbrook, James Harden, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, there is an abundance of outings from which to choose. The first two have stuffed their stat sheets at historic levels; LeBron’s been, well, LeBron, and Kawhi is now one of the game’s top five guys — no questions asked.
The triple-doubles, 40-point games and highlight plays from the four are enough to make an entire mixtape for the 2016-17 season, and each of them has signature moments that separate them from the competition.
As it stands, Westbrook is the favorite to win the MVP based on the odds, with Harden, LeBron and Leonard bringing up the rear. However, any of the four guys can bring home the hardware, and I doubt there would be an uproar. Each of them is deserving.
Russell Westbrook - Apr. 9 vs. Denver
It was a no-brainer. Westbrook made history against the Nuggets by tallying his 42nd triple-double of the season, but he did so in the most Russ way possible. Oklahoma City was down two on their final possession, and, spoiler alert, Westbrook got the ball and drilled the game-winning three from 35-feet out.
The shot eliminated Denver from playoff contention and the unbridled joy on the face of Westbrook and his teammates was priceless. He finished with 50 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists and the performance was a slap in the face to anyone who claims that Westbrook’s an inefficient chucker who turns the ball over too much.
That may be the case on the macro-level, but it wasn’t on that night. He totaled his 50 on 17-of-32 shooting that included going 5-of-12 from three. Additionally, he made all 11 of his free throw attempts and only had two turnovers.
For many, that was the game that sealed the MVP for Westbrook — a storybook ending to a game that encapsulated a storybook season.
James Harden - Dec. 31 vs. New York
Much like Westbrook, this game was of historic proportions. It was New Year’s Eve, and Harden had a party of his own, but he handed out dimes instead of throwing back shots. For the first time in NBA history, a player recorded a triple-double with 50 points, 15 assists and 15 rebounds as Harden finished with 53, 17 and 16.
He was pretty much unstoppable. The Knicks had no answer for him jackknifing through their defense, and Harden connected on 14 of his 26 attempts and went to the line a staggering 18 times — he nailed 16. A big part of his inflated scoring was his sensational night shooting, and 16 of Harden’s shots came from behind the arc. The Beard made nine on the evening and finished with a better clip from three (56.3) than from two (50.0).
Not only was it Harden’s best game, but it’s also arguably the best performance by anybody this year, and it came when the Rockets were asserting themselves as one of the NBA’s most lethal offenses.
LeBron James - Apr. 2 vs. Indiana
James’ best game is also relatively recent, and he single-handedly fought to keep the Cavaliers alive against the Pacers. He went shot-for-shot with an electrified Paul George and finished with 41 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists while the rest of the Cavaliers struggled mightily from the field.
He and George traded buckets down the stretch, and James connected on 16-of-29 attempts while being atrociously inaccurate from three and missing seven of his 10 bombs. Furthermore, he’s was mediocre from the free throw line and finished 6-of-12.
James was also the Cavs’ best defender that evening despite a couple of miscues late in the game.
It was one of those instances where LeBron had to forcibly take control of the game if Cleveland wanted to come out on top, and, even after 14 years, he showed us why he’s still the league’s best player.
Kawhi Leonard - Mar. 3 vs. Houston
Admittedly, picking a game for Leonard was much harder than the other three. He doesn’t have a stat line that jumps out at you like James, Westbrook and Harden because he’s so consistently good this entire season.
I picked this game against the Rockets because it was the most prototypical Kawhi game — volume scoring with radical efficiency against a premier team. He made 12 shots from the field with four coming from three, and none were bigger than the one he shot over Nene with 25.4 seconds left to give San Antonio the lead.
Leonard then went right down and rejected Harden’s potentially game-tying layup which sealed the victory for the Spurs. In short, it was his MVP moment, and it was the most Kawhi-way to cement himself amongst the four finalists.
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