SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- As reporters were led into the Houston Rockets locker room late Sunday afternoon, James Harden sat with a towel covering him up. His knees were wrapped in ice, and a white washcloth was on top of his head.
Tired is probably the best way to describe Harden right now. The MVP chase might be wearing on people around him, too, because their cases, in their eyes, are not being heard enough.
Harden can only do so much. He recorded his 21st triple-double of the season in a 135-128 victory over the Sacramento Kings. Harden had 35 points, 15 assists and 11 rebounds. Those 15 assists led to 36 Rockets points.
Power forward Ryan Anderson called Harden's performance effortless.
"A special player," said Anderson, who scored 21 points on just nine shots, eight of which were 3-point tries. "Not a lot of players who can do it like him."
There is a running debate regarding who is having a better MVP-type season. In Harden's view, wins should matter in the vote. He's not taking anything away from what Russell Westbrook is doing. The Oklahoma City guard set the NBA single-season record for triple-doubles in a season Sunday, notching his 42nd in a victory over Denver. It was OKC's 46th victory, eight fewer than the 54 Houston now has.
Westbrook plays with a frenetic pace, and his numbers just slap you in the face sometimes. He made the winning shot on a wild 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat the Nuggets, his 50th point of the game. Westbrook gets a crowd's attention.
Meanwhile, Harden was just playing as he normally does, with a few Eurosteps here and there, a 3-pointer in a defender's face and passing out of double-teams to open shooters.
Westbrook plays with this fury, like a rapper spitting lyrics. Harden plays at a measured pace he picks up when he wants to. Sort of like a jazz musician.
"I do, too," Harden said of playing with a fury. "I'm at my own pace. I'm a little smoother. Just try to get the job done."
For the majority of the season, Harden has led the Rockets to greater heights. Few outside of Houston believed the Rockets would break 50 wins. And here Mike D'Antoni's squad sits just two victories from 56, which would match the mark of two seasons ago, when Houston reached the Western Conference finals before losing to Golden State in five games.
"I think he's made his case already," D’Antoni said of Harden. "Again, there's a lot of teams not playing for anything right now. So I wouldn't just look at the last few games, but judge the whole package. He's as good as you can get. I think it's exciting for the league."
Harden isn't doing anything wrong. He's producing at a historic rate: Harden has scored or assisted on 56.3 points per game, just barely off the NBA single-season record of 56.8 set by Tiny Archibald in 1972-73. But Westbrook's dynamic play, associated with his quest to get a triple-double for the season, headlines the sports shows. It doesn't bother Harden; if anything, he's proud of his close friend.
"As a matter of fact, I will text him when I get on the bus. that's big time," Harden said of Westbrook setting the triple-double mark. "We don't do no hating, for sure."
Harden and Westbrook are having historic seasons.
Whom voters select for MVP depends on how much you value the triple-doubles in comparison to the wins Harden has helped produce.
"I know I've done enough," Harden said.
We won't know until June.