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James Harden, Russell Westbrook showdown doesn't provide MVP clarity

HOUSTON -- It was sometime in the third quarter when the Houston Rockets flashed a big graphic up on their aircraft-carrier-sized jumbotron, comparing statistics between Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Other than points per game, the other numbers that the Toyota Center jumbotron showed slanted in favor of Harden -- field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, assists per game.

The final score of the game slanted Harden's way, too, as the Rockets beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 137-125, a third win in four meetings for Houston against OKC. The Rockets' official Twitter account wasn't subtle postgame, posting a picture of Harden that said, "More wins; triple-doubles are just a number."

The expectation entering Sunday's matchup was to have some big MVP epiphany between the two current leading candidates. That was the narrative in the build-up. It was an MVP showdown, a chance to make a closing argument on national TV. Westbrook recorded his 36th triple-double the season with 39 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists. Harden was solid, scoring 22 on 8-of-15 shooting plus five rebounds and 12 assists.

So what did we learn? Nothing really.

By the time the final buzzer sounded, the discussion was right back where it started. In some ways, the outcome was the perfect snapshot at what's at the heart of this MVP debate. Westbrook had the better individual performance; Harden has the better team.

With Harden playing quarterback, the Rockets were powered by 79 combined points on 27-of-39 shooting from Lou Williams (31 points on 11-of-15 shooting), Trevor Ariza (24 on 9-of-11) and Eric Gordon (24 on 7-of-13), while Westbrook shouldered the majority of the Thunder's load. It was Harden's best game against OKC this season, but it wasn't overpowering. Westbrook was impressive in trying to spark a comeback, but it was futile against the Rockets' offensive barrage.

The previous three meetings between the teams were all decided by one possession, but Sunday's game got out of hand early. The Rockets led by as many as 25, shooting 63.3 percent from floor and hitting 20-of-39 from 3. In the four matchups, Harden is averaging 20.5 points on 34.3 percent shooting, 7.3 rebounds, 12.3 assists and 6.3 turnovers. Westbrook is averaging 36.3 points on 44.7 percent shooting, 9.0 rebounds, 9.3 assists and 6.0 turnovers. The Rockets are 3-1 against the Thunder.

The MVP is shrouded in ambiguity for a reason. It makes for great conversation and discussion, but it also makes for plenty of confusion as to what matters. Some point to Sunday's game and declare it's clear Harden has better teammates, and Westbrook is carrying a lesser team. Others, like many Rockets players postgame, would say Harden is the straw that stirs the drink and makes all his teammates better, while Westbrook's individual magnetism can stifle his team.

"Over here at the Houston Rockets," Patrick Beverley said, in a way that felt quite shade-ish, "we're focused on winning games, playing the right way, being in position and the small things, the details of the game."

The construction of Harden's team, though, is much more cohesive. The Rockets have had four offseasons of trial and error -- Dwight Howard in, Dwight Howard out, Kevin McHale out, Mike D'Antoni in -- to find a roster and system that complements Harden. This is the first season for the Thunder transitioning from a roster built around Kevin Durant and Westbrook as a duo to Westbrook as a stand-alone star. Westbrook's heavy lifting is more out of necessity and less out of individual chest-thumping.

The Thunder are still in the conversation for the 4-seed in the Western Conference playoffs, which would be a big stamp on Westbrook's resume. But what he can't get back are the four games against Houston, games in which he played fantastic but won only once. He had another triple-double, but Sunday broke an 11-game Thunder win streak in games in which Westbrook notched a triple-double. It has been rare for Westbrook's head-turning stat lines to ever feel empty, but Sunday's definitely didn't carry much pop. The game itself spoke to the present MVP narrative: Look at how much Westbrook has to do to keep the Thunder in it, while Harden is surrounded by far more scoring depth.

Neither Westbrook nor Harden were interested in talking about MVP, because the campaigning is best left for those around them. Ryan Anderson and D'Antoni declared Harden the MVP, with Enes Kanter doing the same two days ago for Westbrook.

Harden and Westbrook have stayed out of it, possibly out of the immense respect and friendship they have for each other. It's always a little unusual to see Westbrook excited to seek out an opponent postgame, much less talk about them in a complimentary fashion, but Westbrook made it a point to chat with Harden, both at the buzzer and in the hallway near the locker rooms shortly after.

"I've been knowing James since he was little, and we both grew up in California," Westbrook said. "Being here, it's a blessing to be able to have people you grow up with in the NBA. It's something you don't take for granted and friendships are something I don't take for granted. James is a good friend of mine and I'm a good friend of his. Obviously I know he's playing well and his team is doing well, and I know he competes every game."

There wasn't much else to say. Harden is playing great; so is Westbrook, if not better. Westbrook's team is good; Harden's is better. How much they mean to the success of their squads, how much their numbers matter, much history is to be included -- all of those discussion points endure for the remaining two and a half weeks of the season. If you wanted to find something else out about to determine who deserves MVP, Sunday's game wasn't the one to tell you anything new.