Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets

James Harden is putting his MVP candidacy on full display against Timberwolves

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Rockets guard James Harden (Getty Images)

Every time James Harden goes to the free-throw line, the same thing happens.

"MVP! MVP! MVP!"

Sure, it will never have the same muster as the first few times the Toyota Center crowd erupted, but the truth of the message has gotten clearer as the season has gone on. So while the excitement of that first "MVP" chant might not be as fun as the 50th, the way its aged keeps the fun alive.

Harden barely lost the MVP award to Russell Westbrook last season, but it's never affected him. Even this year, with all the buzz around him, his brand and his team, he's refrained from speaking on his personal hype almost entirely.

"I'm not going to get in-depth with all that, but I thought winning was the most important thing," Harden said last April. "If you set your team up in a position to have a chance, at the ultimate goal, that's the most important thing."

It certainly was this year - the Rockets had the best team in the NBA. They had a top-two offense and a top-five defense. They added Chris Paul, P.J. Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Gerald Green to the mix, and saw Clint Capela make major improvements on both ends of the floor.

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Sure Not Now

The Rockets were projected to beat the Timberwolves fairly easily in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Through two games, Las Vegas odds had pegged them as 11.5 and 10.5-point favorites, respectively. It was, by far, the greatest margin of expected win total through the opening slate of the first round.

But in Game 1, the Rockets were off. They missed 27 of 37 3-point attempts - 33 of them were considered open or wide open looks, according to NBA.com - and Chris Paul was uncharacteristically laissez faire with the basketball, finishing with six turnovers.

Capela had a huge first half, but Tom Thibodeau adjusted coming out of the locker room. In the following 24 minutes, Capela finished with just four points.

With just under seven minutes to go, the Wolves had a lead. It looked like they could really do it.

But that's when Harden played like an MVP again. He proceeded to score 13 of his 44 points in the final 6:49 of the game, and he did it in the most Harden way possible. He hit 3s off Capela screens, got to the line, converted and-ones and also assisted on the lone bucket he didn't score himself in the remaining minutes.

But again, Harden didn't seem interested in talking about his individual success in the game. He didn't even sound all that impressed with some of his more noteworthy highlights. On one play that saw a Harden spin move and a Green screen tripping up Derrick Rose, Harden followed by slamming it home and tying the game.

"Once I got by Rose, no one stepped up so I went in for the dunk," Harden chuckled. "It's the playoffs. It's not about how great you shoot the ball, it's just about getting the win. That's all that matters."

Maybe Harden speaking on the team success and winning is just proper media etiquette. Maybe he's just figured out exactly what to say in order to keep his public persona as unselfish as his on-court play.

But when Game 2 rolled around, Harden played poorly and needed the teammates he had talked up the prior game - and all season long.

He shot just 2-of-18 from the field and 1-of-10 from 3-point range. Meanwhile, the rest of his team woke up from the 3-point line, and the Rockets beat the Wolves in a fashion more consistent with the regular season.

And while the additions this year might have saved them in Game 2, it's still Harden that makes this team go. Because in a year like the one he's having, even a bad shooting night can't stop him from helping the team.

"What he did on the defensive end that was amazing," Trevor Ariza said after Game 2. "He really stepped up and sat down on defense. That's something he's been working on all year - he's improved unbelievably."

All of this is possible because of Harden's inherent greatness as a basketball player, but the reason it's showcased so much better this year is because of the way the Rockets are set up, and the way Mike D'Antoni maximizes his options on the floor.

The Rockets finished the season second in offensive rating - they lost the "title" by one-tenth of a point to Golden State - while leading the league in 3-point makes and attempts and trailing only the Hornets in made free throws.

It only works at an elite level because Harden is so good. Off Houston's dangerous pick-and roll, Harden is capable of taking matters into his own hands. Several times against Minnesota through two games, he has attacked off screens, and it's been impossible to guard.

"We've been doing that basically the last few years," Harden said after Game 1. "Whether [Capela is] open for the lob, or I'm able to get to the basket and finish."

He can take it to the rim, where he's often fouled - he led the league in free-throw attempts for the fourth consecutive season. He's been in the top three each of the last six years.

Once he establishes his own presence, he'll often start dumping it off to Capela for easy lobs. In the first half of Game 1, Capela had multiple easy looks right off the bat.

This was even before Harden went on his streak, as it seemed clear that the Wolves were more worried about "The Beard" drawing fouls than anything else.

Once the paint advantage is established, the Rockets' shooters become readily available. After Game 1, they didn't look like real threats.

But anyone that's seen them this year knew what was coming in Game 2.

The fact that the Rockets have Harden and Paul run these sets at an elite level without ever missing a beat is even scarier. Paul missed some time with injury, but in the 1,847 minutes he did play, only 970 were with Harden. The other half was just him, running the same sets with a slightly varied cast of characters.

The Timberwolves have learned that quickly.

"[Harden] creates easy offense. He's unselfish," Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said Wednesday. "He and Chris [Paul], what they do off the dribble makes it hard."

Heading back to Minneapolis for Game 3, the Rockets could very well finish the series off early next week. The odds of Harden repeating his Game 2 performance seem virtually impossible based on everything he's done each of the past three years.

Last year resulted in a second-place MVP finish. This year, he'll likely end up with the award. If he can sit the Larry O'Brien trophy next to it, all in the same year, everyone will be happy.

Hearing the MVP chants at the free-throw line must be nice, but hearing them at a championship parade would be the best. That's the most important thing, right?

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