PORTLAND, Ore. -- Pockets of fans in the electric Moda Center crowd serenaded Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard with MVP chants during his trips to the free throw line Tuesday night."They're supposed to do that, right?" James Harden said after scoring 42 points in the Houston Rockets' 115-111 victory that snapped Portland's 13-game winning streak. "Who cares?"
Harden, the MVP runner-up for the second time a year ago, consistently has dismissed questions about the award this season. Frankly, as the Rockets cruise to the NBA's best record with Harden leading the league in scoring, there really shouldn't be any more questions at this point. Except maybe, will Harden join the Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry as the only players in NBA history to win MVP in a unanimous vote?
"That's the best offensive player I've ever seen," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said of Harden. "They're running guys to him and he just steps a little further back and makes a 3. The way he can pass and see the floor, get layups, floaters, maybe a lob, maybe out to the corner -- he has so many weapons, and now he's shooting those step-back 3s.
A couple of crunch-time possessions against the Trail Blazers illustrated D'Antoni's point. On both occasions, Harden swished step-back 3s, which he has developed into arguably the most lethal weapon in the league today. On the first, which came with the Rockets clinging to a two-point lead with a little more than three minutes left, Harden passed up a good look after catching the pass at the 3-point line. He saw that Jusuf Nurkic was mismatched against him and was happy to invite the Blazers' big man to dance before drilling the step-back trey.
"I was just trying to wait for the defender to make his move," said Harden, who was 13-of-25 from the field, including 5-of-7 from 3-point range. "Once he got to where he wanted -- or where I wanted him to be -- then I took my shot." The second was pretty much a dagger with 1:55 left, stretching the Rockets' lead to nine, although the Blazers rallied to make it a two-point game before Houston's final possession. Lillard, whom Portland purposely kept from switching onto Harden for much of the game, was hopeless to prevent another Harden step-back 3 from falling.
For most players, a contested step-back jumper is the shot opponents hope to force. For Harden, who has created off the dribble for most of his league-leading 245 3-pointers this season, it's the shot that has allowed an established superstar to soar into another stratosphere.
"No mortal can do that," D'Antoni said. "He does it. Hey, do it. It's amazing." Harden had a legitimate case for MVP last season, when Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook narrowly won after leading the league in scoring and joining Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to average a triple-double for a season. With all due respect to Lillard and the rest of the league's superstars, Harden has no serious MVP competition this season.
"Nah," Chris Paul said. "I think that will take care of itself." The summer trade for Paul, who capped a 22-point, 8-rebound, 6-assist performance Tuesday night by draining a pair of free throws for the final points after Portland's furious comeback attempt, was a primary factor in the Rockets' rise from a solid second-round team to the potential wrecking ball of the Warriors' dynasty. Houston's front office did a phenomenal job of surrounding its co-superstars with role players who serve as excellent complementary pieces. But Harden is the guy who makes the Rockets go, and the fact that the 28-year-old guard took another significant leap forward this summer has fueled Houston's rise to the top of the Western Conference standings.
The Rockets seem to have made it a mere formality that they'll march into the playoffs with home-court advantage throughout the postseason. At 57-14, they have built a four-game lead over the Warriors and the East-leading Toronto Raptors -- and Houston owns the tiebreaker over Golden State. Recent injuries to all of their All-Stars probably have cost the Warriors any hope of catching the Rockets, regardless of Houston's results. But the Rockets, who have suffered a grand total of one loss since the All-Star break, haven't provided any chance to pull closer.
If the Rockets were going to slip, this three-game trip against West playoff teams would have been the time. But Houston swept the New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves and Trail Blazers over a four-day span, with Harden knocking down crunch-time step-back 3s in each game to put the finishing touches on a few big wins and his MVP campaign.