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Harden humbles James, Cavaliers in MVP campaign

Rockets' guard makes statement in 105-103 overtime thriller

POSTED: Mar 2, 2015 1:32 AM ET

By Fran Blinebury

BY Fran Blinebury

NBA.com

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Harden Leads Rockets To Impressive Win

James Harden goes toe-to-toe with LeBron James and lifts Houston to victory.

— Rough. Tough. Physical. Contentious. Dirty.

"Yeah, it's like street ball," said James Harden. "You grew up playing games like that."

If Harden keeps growing up any faster, they're going to have to raise the rafters of Toyota Center just so he doesn't go straight through the roof.

He's scored more points in a game this season than he did Sunday. Grabbed more rebounds. Dished out more assists. Played more artistically.

But never been more ferocious, more driven.

Cavaliers vs. Rockets

James Harden scores 33 points and grabs eight rebounds as the Rockets defeat the Cavaliers in overtime.

You're damn right that 105-103 overtime win means more when it comes against LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

As messages go, this one couldn't have been delivered more emphatically if it had come wrapped around a brick and tossed through a plate glass window or attached to a flaming arrow.

"M-V-P."

While there may still be a horse race for the award this season, there's no doubt which thoroughbred is now galloping ahead of the field.

Less than 72 hours after James stated his case by outscoring Golden State's Stephen Curry 42-18 in a routine win by the Cavs, Harden provided his response.

James scored more points (37 to Harden's 33), but took far more shots (35 to 18) to get them. Playing without point guard Kyrie Irving, James controlled the ball like a yo-yo on a string and tried to do too much. Playing without center Dwight Howard, as he's done for much of the season, Harden simply opened his arms wide to embrace all of the things that had to be done.

"Every time you watch [Harden] play, you're watching history," Rockets Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon had said a few hours before the tip. "He's doing something spectacular. Every night the best defensive player on the other team has to guard him and also the game plan of the other team is how to stop him. And he's still finding a way to be effective and giving them an opportunity to win every time. So he is definitely the MVP."

Harden could win the vote just on the way he's handled a season where Howard has sat on the shelf more than a potted plant and yet never allowed the Rockets to wilt with excuses or self pity.

He is the league's leading scorer because that's what the Rockets need him to be to have any chance with their current 41-18 record and No. 3 seed in the deep and dangerous Western Conference. He is his team's leading assist man because he's the one who knows how to get the most out of a supporting cast of role players. He's the one who lights their fire, keeps them moving forward and more often than not drags them across the finish line.

Lately Harden had been playing more the role of facilitator in the Rockets offense, but on Sunday he was the bowling ball that rolled down the alley and sent the pins flying.

There was the crossover dribble that left James rubber-legged as Harden juked left and then cruised right toward the hoop. There were the times he bull-rushed J.R. Smith to make it to the rim.

Most especially, there was the possession late in the third quarter when James and Tristan Thompson converged on a double-team to tie up Harden and force a jump ball. While James tried to use one arm to pin him to the floor, Harden lashed out with left leg and kicked King James in the family jewels. The kick drew a flagrant foul on Harden and then only a shrug.

Harden's Flagrant Foul

James Harden appears to kick LeBron James during the third quarter.

"We're growing as a team," Harden said. "Early in the season things got tough and we didn't know how to pull the situations out. Lately we've grown. We been believing in each other."

They're believing in each other because they believe in him and as the season gets later, the stakes get higher and the spotlight grows brighter.

People laughed last summer when Harden said he was the best player in the NBA. Now he gets to stand at the free-throw line with those "M-V-P! M-V-P!" chants as affirmation.

"Obviously, it's a great feeling," he said. "It's moments you dream of, especially since I know how hard I've worked to put myself in this situation. I just embrace and enjoy it."

He embraced the last seven minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime when the Cavs made their defensive adjustment and guarded him with James.

"I knew it was gonna come at some point," Harden said. "Of course, I always want it. An opportunity to go up against the best player in the world, you've got to take advantage of it."

It was a day when James not only missed 20 attempts from the field, but shot just 3-for-11 from the foul line and missed seven of his last eight free throws, including two with 4.2 seconds left in overtime that potentially could have won the game.

LeBron Misses Crucial Free Throws

LeBron misses two crucial free throws at the end of Sunday's game.

It was a game that would have fit right at home in June, dripping with importance and emotion, the kind Harden remembers from Oklahoma City and yearns to carry a team of his own through.

"Yeah, definitely, the intensity," he said. "Each possession counting. For both teams it was like a playoff game. We were prepared for it."

Rough. Tough. Physical. Contentious. Dirty. An MVP statement.

"Every game is a statement for me," Harden said. "I'm out here trying to prove myself."

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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