Why Stephen Curry leads James Harden

HOUSTON -- Like quite a few stadiums, the Toyota Center plays Drake’s “0 to 100” to get the crowd hyped. The version of the song they blasted before Saturday’s Rockets-Warriors game had one subtle alteration, though. Drake’s mentions of Stephen Curry were blanked out like curse words.

The Rockets take individual awards quite seriously. Daryl Morey calls James Harden the MVP on Twitter and decries a voting system that might deprive him of a starting spot. Intense promos boom over the arena’s magnificent, massive Jumbotron, beseeching fans to support the cause. After dubbing Harden the MVP, the ad insists, “We need to get this guy on the world stage, as a starter at the All-Star Game.”

Harden has had a fantastic season, to be sure, but much as the Rockets try to push this story, he’s not quite having Curry’s impact. He trails slightly in advanced stats such as Real Plus-Minus, PER and win share rate. Harden’s total counting stats might look better, but he plays an extra three minutes per game. Why does Harden play more? Because Curry frequently rests near the end of overwhelming Warrior victories. Speaking of which, as of today, the Rockets have seven more losses than Golden State, a team that’s beaten them in three consecutive games. This current debate isn’t really a debate. Sure, things can change. Harden could have a great stretch and reclaim the status of having a better season. For now, though, Curry paces the MVP race.

Saturday night’s thrashing of the Rockets was another reminder of Curry’s unique offensive impact, juxtaposed against an uncommonly bad Harden performance. Curry missed his first five shots beyond the arc, but that opening didn’t curb his influence on the outcome. That’s because the 3-pointer doesn’t define his game so much as it fuels it. The constant deep threat is leveraged into offense for everyone. Like a notorious bank robber who can pull off heists with a toy gun, Curry can pillage a fearful defense without using his famous weapon. This process was exemplified in the third quarter, when he scored 17 points without even attempting a three and Golden State turned a close game into a blowout.

As Golden State’s point guard summarized, “The second half, I was able to split a couple pick-and-rolls because they were up so high, and I got some pump fake fly-bys and getting in some midrange jumpers and getting in the paint. That's just an adjustment. They try to take the 3-point shot away, and you can't force them up at that point. You got to find a different avenue to either get the ball out of your hands or get into the paint."

Get into the paint he did. Curry gashed the Rockets with repeated drives that ended in an array of soft floaters and pool-pro-perfect bank shots.

In contrast, Harden was taken out of the game after struggling to drive against Klay Thompson and eventually stopping altogether. Thompson refused to take a lot of credit for Harden’s 12-point, four-assist performance and cited other times when the same kind of defense was greeted with monster nights from Houston’s shooting guard. Golden State’s effort on Harden was a collective one. They forced him right and kept swarming the moment Harden crossed to his dominant, left hand.

Speaking of impressive defensive performances, David Lee supplemented 18 points in 25 minutes with a flying fourth-quarter swat of Kostas Papanikolaou. It was the kind of play you just didn’t see the past season and the kind of play you’re seeing increasingly often this season. Lee’s averaging 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes to last season’s 0.4 per 36. He’s one of a few players whose defense has improved under the new regime. After the game, Lee explained his defensive progression by saying, “I’m trying to challenge more shots at the rim this year, doing a better job of that. I just know to put a huge amount of emphasis on it as far as coaches that work with me. Ron Adams has done a great job of watching a lot of film.”

Lee was great, but he was far from alone. Marreese Speights paced the Warriors in the first half. Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green’s combined rim protection keyed the third-quarter transition assault. Thompson continues to make me feel like an idiot for endorsing the Kevin Love trade. Andre Iguodala gave Golden State the exact kind of game they needed off the bench. In totality, this could've been the best Warriors game of the year.

It’s hard to envision it all going so smoothly without the current MVP, though. With Curry on the floor, the Warriors have outscored opponents by 486 points this season. That’s after only 38 games. For comparison’s sake, in the 81 games of Derrick Rose’s MVP season, the Bulls outscored opponents by 498 with him on the floor.

Perhaps the least intimidating NBA player in appearance scares the points out of teams. Give him any space, and he’ll rain 3s off the dribble. Send two guys at him, and he’s coating the paint with the defense’s sweat. He’s a problem that refuses solution, a presence that inspires fear and frustration. No wonder the Rockets treat his name like a curse.