James Harden Finally Woke Up Against His Former Team, And The Rockets Might Be Back

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The two top finishers for the MVP award last season couldn’t have started their 2015-16 campaigns any differently heading into Monday night’s games. The Warriors once again are leading the NBA in point differential, and Stephen Curry is averaging 37 points a game with a bananas player-efficiency rating hovering near 50. For comparison’s sake, Anthony Davis led the league with a 30 PER last year and no one has ever finished a season over 40. But James Harden has gone the other way. His Rockets lost each of their first three games by at least 20 points, and he shot 3-32 from 3-point range in those games.

Well, on Monday night Harden looked like an MVP contender again, and all it took was a game against his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Look at him cook:

Harden finished with 37 points and the Rockets got their first win of the season, 110-105. It was also the first game in which Ty Lawson looked like a real part of the Houston team. He had 14 points and 11 assists, and nearly all of his production came in the second half.

But really, it all stems from Harden. Once he got his confidence back with a couple of buckets at the end of the first half, the Thunder had to start respecting his outside shot, which opened up his penetration. Lawson started penetrating against defenses that weren’t as set, and the Rockets’ offense finally clicked for a sustained period for the first time this season.

The Rockets have as much talent as anybody in the NBA, but if they want to make it back to the Western Conference Finals and beyond, James Harden still has to be an MVP contender. If he’s not hitting shots or getting to the line, the Rockets become much easier to defend and also lose a lot of energy on the defensive end. Dwight Howard looks just like he did at the start of last season, which is to say a diminished player. Lawson will probably find his way, but hasn’t quite yet. It will (again) all flow from Harden.