Shootaround (Jan. 1): Harden makes MVP case
Harden’s historic night screams MVP | Westbrook wraps up 2016 in his signature style | Rookie Brogdon joins triple-double party | LeBron’s 2016 couldn’t have been much sweeter
No. 1: Harden’s historic night screams MVP — An unprecedented performance on the final night of 2016 is the latest and greatest point in what is turning into a monstrous MVP campaign for Houston Rockets guard James Harden. The man who didn’t make any of the three All-NBA teams at the end of the 2015-16 season is having a season that looks a lot like one of two seasons produced by another point guard who won back-to-back KIA MVP’s playing for Mike D’Antoni. As Calvin Watkins of ESPN.com points out, Harden’s historic night has MVP written all over it:
If Mike D’Antoni’s offense has produced one thing, it’s probably the favorite for the MVP award.
James Harden scored a career-high 53 points in 42 minutes of work Saturday night and became the first man in league history — think about that for a moment — to have at least 50 points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists in an NBA game.
Harden grabbed 16 rebounds and tied a career high with 17 assists in the Houston Rockets’ 129-122 victory over the New York Knicks.
“He’s one of the great players of all time. He ranks right up there with the best,” Rockets owner Leslie Alexander told ESPN. “I mean, nobody has ever done this before. The other team is playing hard and doing everything they could to stop him, and they couldn’t. He’s a fantastic player.”
Harden became just the fifth player in league history to record a triple-double while scoring at least 40 points. The others are impressive names: Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady.
The numbers for Harden in D’Antoni’s offense are staggering. On Saturday, he had a triple-double after three quarters. At one point, Harden’s stat line read 50-15-15. Harden’s 53 points tied Wilt Chamberlain for the most in a triple-double in league history.
“When I look at it, it is unbelievable,” Harden said. “This season so far has been unbelievable. The chemistry, the wins feel really, really good. Just the vibe around here helps for us to go out on the court and have fun with each other.”
Harden has been better than expected by those who really don’t know the type of player he is. Harden has always been an excellent passer, and now, with him the full-time point guard, his passing abilities are becoming more appreciated.
His 17 assists Saturday marked the 27th time he has had a game with double-digit assists. It’s becoming harder and harder to put Harden’s season in perspective because of what he’s accomplishing on the floor.
“He’s good,” D’Antoni said with a smile when talking about his point guard.
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No. 2: Westbrook wraps up 2016 in signature style — Sixteen and counting. That’s how many triple-doubles Russell Westbrook has piled up so far this season. But if you count the entire calendar year of 2016, Westbrook has already crossed a statistical rubicon, recording his 31st triple-double of the “year.” He finished 2016 in signature style, collecting his latest triple-double by halftime of Saturday night’s win over the reeling Los Angeles Clippers. How this all fits, both historically and this season, for Westbrook and the Thunder remains to be seen. Erik Horne of the Oklahoman tries to put it in context:
In a 114-88 win on New Year’s Eve, Westbrook had the second-fastest triple-double of his career, finishing with 17 points, 12 rebounds and 14 assists.
The Thunder’s No. 2 scorer Victor Oladipo was back from injury. The Thunder had a shorthanded Clippers squad on the second night of a back-to-back in its crosshairs. And Westbrook closed his historic year with a triple-double in 18 minutes, 45 seconds.
“It’s a blessing, man,” Westbrook said. “My teammates did a great job of making it easier for me. My job is to keep the pace high and keep reading the game.”
By the end of the first half, he had 11 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists in less than 20 minutes of game time. Westbrook fastest triple-double came in 17 minutes, 46 seconds against the Lakers on April 11, 2016.
By halftime, the game was well in hand on a night the Clippers were playing without Chris Paul (hamstring soreness) and Oklahoma City native Blake Griffin (arthroscopic knee surgery). With those two out, the Thunder outscored the Clippers 33-0 on the fast break.
It certainly helped having Oladipo back from his right wrist sprain. In the first quarter, Westbrook took every opportunity to get the ball to him on the break. Westbrook let the Clippers’ defense run past him at the 3-point line. A few feet to his left was Oladipo, ready to shoot.
When his 3-pointer fell and timeout was called, Westbrook turned around, smiled and clapped, waiting for Oladipo to see.
“With some of their guys being out they are probably not the same transition team,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “But the game was about how we needed to come back from the Memphis game.”
“The game will tell you what to do, and that’s just what I do,” Westbrook said.
Westbrook was even in the ballpark of the fastest triple-double in league history. Jim Tucker had one in 17 minutes playing for the Syracuse Nationals in 1955.
But on an offensive possession in the second quarter, Westbrook, needing a rebound to surpass his personal record, sagged back around midcourt rather than crash the offensive glass.
Even without pushing completely, it was as if Westbrook could hear footsteps in his two-quarter triple-double chase.
As the Thunder was bludgeoning the Clippers, former Thunder guard James Harden was in Houston simultaneously posting a 24-point, 10-rebound, nine-assist first half against the Knicks.
Harden fell an assist short of the rare halftime triple-double, while Westbrook secured his second of the calendar year with a defensive rebound 34.9 seconds before the break.
In the process, Westbrook logged his 31st triple-double of 2016, passing Oscar Robertson’s record for the most in a calendar year (30) … on the final day of the year.
The Thunder closed 2016 with a 21-13 record, sixth place in the Western Conference – a position several thought OKC couldn’t be in after Kevin Durant’s summer departure in free agency to Golden State.
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No. 3: Rookie Brogdon joins triple-double party — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker have already made statements with their play this season that suggests the Milwaukee Bucks already have two young potential All-Stars and franchise players on the roster. But the real gem this season could be rookie second-round Draft pick Malcolm Brogdon, who joined leading MVP candidates Russell Westbrook and James Harden on the New Year’s Eve triple-double parade. Brogdon led the way for the Bucks in a win over the Chicago Bulls, their third triumph over their Central Division rivals this season, cementing his status as yet another rising star for the young Bucks. Charles Gardner has more:
The Milwaukee Bucks used sensational performances from young stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker to beat the division-rival Chicago Bulls for the third time in December. And don’t forget rookie guard Malcolm Brogdon, who was everywhere while posting a triple-double in just his second NBA start.
It was an early New Year’s celebration as the Bucks passed, dunked and blocked their way to a 116-96 victory over the Bulls before a sellout United Center crowd.
Antetokounmpo finished with 35 points, nine rebounds, a career-high seven blocks, seven assists and two steals, while Parker added 27 points and five rebounds. Brogdon had 15 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds while playing 39 minutes with Matthew Dellavedova sidelined by a hamstring injury.
“We’re holding him back; blame it on the coach,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said with a grin after Brogdon’s big night. “He’s a special person. For him to be asked to start and run the team with Giannis and Jabari, he has handled everything we’ve thrown at him. He was great tonight.”
Milwaukee (16-16) finished its week-long trip with a 2-2 record and sneaked past the Bulls (16-18) in the Central Division standings. The Bucks have dominated all three meetings with Chicago and won both games at the United Center by 20 or more points.
“It was a great bounce-back,” Antetokounmpo said, referring to the Bucks’ 116-99 loss at Minnesota on Friday night. “We needed this win. I felt like against Minnesota I didn’t play hard enough.
“I knew they (the Bulls) were going to come and play physical because we won the first two games against them. We moved the ball real well, we boxed out for rebounds and did our job.”
The Bucks pulled away with a huge fourth quarter, outscoring the Bulls, 36-20, as Antetokounmpo scored 14 points and Parker nine. Brogdon had six points and six assists in the quarter and got his triple-double with a pass to Greg Monroe for a score.
“It shocked me when they said I was one assist away,” Brogdon said. “I was hunting the assist.
“Coach Kidd at halftime said we have to push the pace, get out in transition and use our youth against them. I tried to do that. So did Giannis and my teammates.”
Chicago held a 51-49 halftime lead but Milwaukee rallied from an early 11-1 deficit.
“We caught our composure,” Kidd said. “We didn’t panic. Giannis, being the leader that he is, took it upon himself to get the guys going. Jabari in that second half, playing through him. Malcolm was doing all the little things, helping the bigs rebound.”
Brogdon made a lob to Antetokounmpo in the third quarter that the Greek Freak somehow controlled off the backboard, hesitating in the air before dropping it through the net.
“It wasn’t even a good pass,” Brogdon said. “I think it might have hit the backboard before he caught it. But he caught it and finished it. I was actually shocked.
“You try to make a play for him and mess it up, and he just corrects your mistake and finishes it.”
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No. 4: LeBron’s 2016 couldn’t have been much sweeter — LeBron James celebrated his 32nd birthday in style, dropping 32 points for reigning champion Cleveland Cavaliers in Saturday’s win over Charlotte. It was the exclamation point on a calendar year that saw James and the Cavaliers end a 52-year championship drought in the city. It underlined, as Dennis Monoloff of the Plain Dealer explains (with a month-by-month statistical breakdown included), a year of James doing what he’s always seemed to do best:
All he did was win.
Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James’ calendar year 2016 began Jan. 2 in Cleveland. He scored 29 in 29 minutes of a 104-79 rout of the Orlando Magic. His year ended Dec. 31 in Charlotte, N.C. He scored 32 in 36 minutes of a 121-109 conquest of the Hornets.
In games that counted in 2016, LeBron went 76-21 (.784). The 16 biggest victories came April-June, when LeBron led the Cavs to an NBA crown — the city’s first title in a major pro sport since the Browns won the NFL Championship in 1964. He earned NBA Finals MVP.
LeBron closed the year on a 12-game winning streak.
No wonder LeBron won Sports Illustrated’s sportsperson of the year and AP’s male athlete of the year.
LeBron’s 2016, given all that he accomplished individually and for his team, ranks as arguably the greatest calendar year in Cleveland pro sports history. Tris Speaker’s 1920, Lou Boudreau’s 1948, Otto Graham’s 1955 and Jim Brown’s 1964 are in the discussion.
Here is a month-by-month capsule of LeBron’s averages for minutes, points, assists and rebounds, and the Cavs’ record in games he played:
Record: 13-3 (.813)
Record: 8-4 (.667)
Record: 10-4 (.714)
Record: 4-1 (.800)
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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The San Antonio Spurs might have to kick off the 2017 portion of their season without Kawhi Leonard in uniform against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena tonight (6 p.m. ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS) … Carmelo Anthony is dealing with a knee injury that he insists is “not that serious” … Detroit’s Stanley Johnson has had to refine his game to earn the minutes he believes he deserves … The Utah Jazz continue to rely on their defense (this time on Phoenix sharpshooter Devin Booker) to carry them this season … Shabazz Muhammad is hoping his best gets him going for the rest of this season …