HOUSTON -- In the final regular-season meeting between two of the leading MVP candidates, James Harden got the best of Russell Westbrook, again, as the Houston Rockets topped the Oklahoma City Thunder 137-125.
The Rockets won three of four against the Thunder this season, and this matchup could be an opening-round playoff showdown. The first three meetings were all decided by one possession, but in Sunday's MVP showcase, the Rockets led by as many as 25 points. Westbrook tried to lead a late comeback charge, pulling the Thunder within nine with 1:50 left, but they were unable to slow down Houston's offense and the rally fell short.
"We were on a streak from the beginning of the game," Harden said. "Offensively, we were in attack mode, and defensively we stuck to our coverages. Just from the beginning of the game, we were locked in. And as a result, we rode that lead all the way 'til the end of the game."
Harden scored 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting, adding five rebounds and 12 assists, and he was supplemented by three teammates who scored 79 combined points on 27-of-39 shooting (including 17-of-25 on 3s): Lou Williams (31 on 11-of-15), Trevor Ariza (24 on 9-of-11) and Eric Gordon (24 on 7-of-13). As a team, the Rockets shot 63.3 percent and hit 20-of-39 3-pointers.
"They hit a lot of shots, man," Westbrook said. "Especially with a team like that, if they get hot, it can be trouble."
In what many saw as an opportunity at a closing MVP statement game, Harden didn't necessarily impress individually, instead taking the approach of controlling the game and involving his hot-shooting teammates.
"I don't think in his mind he was trying to prepare himself to play one-on-one with somebody," Ariza said. "This is a team game. The main focus for him is winning, and for us as well. That's what we want to do, and tonight everybody was playing well, so he shared it well."
Said Rockets guard Patrick Beverley: "I mean, I thought it was all about wins from the beginning. That's you guys that talk about that. We don't talk about that. We talk about winning championships. In order to do that, you've got to do it collectively. Over here at the Houston Rockets, we're focused on winning games, playing the right way, being in position and the small things, the details of the game."
Westbrook recorded his 36th triple-double of the season, posting 39 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists in 39 minutes. It's the first time in Westbrook's past 11 triple-doubles, though, that the Thunder lost. On the season, the Thunder are 29-7 when Westbrook notches a triple-double.
"I just play, man," Westbrook said of the MVP race between him and Harden. "I go out and play every night, and play at a high level like I do every single night, and try to help us win. It just didn't work out that way tonight, so I have to get ready for tomorrow's game."
With 10 games remaining, Westbrook is five triple-doubles away from tying Oscar Robertson for the most in a single season. His case for MVP largely rests in the history he's chasing, while Harden has an advantage in both the head-to-head matchups and the overall win column.
"He just plays the game the way it should be played," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said of Harden. "And ... we're 3-1 against them. I mean, you figure it out."