Star power or system? Houston showing OKC the answer is both

Twenty minutes after the Houston Rockets beat the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday night to take a commanding 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven first round playoff series, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey was walking quickly through the hallways of Chesapeake Energy Arena.

There was an urgency in his steps, as if he was late for the team bus or something. But in this case, that urgency was probably something closer to relief.

"You take a step back and say, 'A lot of our guys played well tonight. But Russell [Westbrook] had one of the better performances that I've ever seen,'" Morey told ESPN. "It's an achievement for our team to come on the road, take the hit from him and still get the win.'"

Once again, the system Morey and D'Antoni created out of science, jazz and funk this season triumphed over the individual brilliance of Westbrook's Rage Against the Machine.

This time, the Rockets had thwarted Westbrook and his 35 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists -- the triple-double clinched by halftime -- without even getting a great performance from Harden, who was limited by an ankle injury.

Two of the unheralded free agents Morey had signed last summer, Nene (28 points on 12-for-12 shooting, 10 rebounds) and Eric Gordon (18 points, eight rebounds), had big nights. So too did Lou Williams (18 points, seven rebounds), the player Morey acquired midseason. None of these qualified as splashy moves.

But when you have a vision of the system you want to run, around the foundational player you want to orbit, splash doesn't really matter.

"Mike [D'Antoni's] coached this way a long time," Morey explained. "We've conceptually wanted to play this way for a long time. You can think it all you want but unless you get a James Harden, who's like, the perfect guy to run it, it doesn't happen."

There were any number of filters to view this year's MVP race in the NBA. But when it got down to it, when voters opened up the official email from the NBA and its accounting firm Ernst & Young and logged into to vote on the league's most prestigious award, one question hung in the air:

System or star power?

In one group you had players like Harden and Kawhi Leonard who excelled on teams that have well-defined, beautiful systems on offense and defense. In the other group you had individuals like Westbrook and LeBron James, who flat out carried and willed their teams to success despite gaping holes in the systems their teams ran.

Harden evolved into the perfect leader of the D'Antoni- and Morey-led science experiment. Steve Nash in shoulder pads, the Bearded Picasso of the rip-through, and reviver of at least three teammates' careers (Gordon, Nene and Ryan Anderson).

Westbrook became Oklahoma City's one-man wrecking crew. The reincarnation of Kobe after Shaq left the Lakers. A walking, snarling triple-double who redeemed a city and its franchise after Kevin Durant left as a free agent.

Voting closed the day before the playoffs began, but the first-round matchup between the Thunder and Rockets has offered an immediate referendum. And so far, the series has only deepened the divide between Westbrook and Harden's MVP résumés.

Both have been brilliant in the series. Westbrook has posted triple-doubles in three of the first four games. Harden became the first player since Michael Jordan in 1990 to score at least 35 points in his team's first three playoff games.

"We've conceptually wanted to play this way for a long time. You can think it all you want but unless you get a James Harden, who's like, the perfect guy to run it, it doesn't happen."
Rockets GM Daryl Morey

But the Rockets have a chance to close out the series in Game 5 Tuesday night in Houston because Harden's teammates have been far better than Westbrook's.

Is that because of Houston's system or the way Harden runs that system? Is the Rockets supporting cast simply better than Oklahoma City's? Or is Harden making them better?

Five Rockets are averaging double figures in these playoffs, suggesting Harden and the system has elevated them. However Houston has actually been better with Harden off the court (plus-16.2) than with him on it (plus-7.9) in this series.

It's fairly straightforward when those questions are asked of Westbrook and his teammates. Oklahoma City is plus-3.0 in 139 minutes with Westbrook on the floor and minus-40 in the 39 minutes he's been off the court. When Westbrook hits the bench, the Thunder rapidly give back the lead. OKC blew leads of 15 points in Game 2, 15 in Game 3 and 14 in Game 4.

Why does that happen? Is Westbrook's supporting cast so vastly inferior to Harden's? Are they just not playing well?

That's certainly what Berry Tramel of the Oklahoman was trying to ask Sunday night after the game, in a question addressed to center Steven Adams but hijacked by Westbrook.

"Hold on, Steven," Westbrook said. "I don't want nobody to try and split us up. We're all one team. If I go to the bench and Steven's on the floor and I'm off the floor, we're in this together. Don't split us up. Don't try to split us up. Don't try to make us go against each other or make it Russell and the rest of the guys. Russell against Houston. I don't want to hear that. We're in this together. We play as a team. That's all that matters."

Westbrook's instinct to defend his teammates was admirable. But his tactics effectively demonstrated the underlying question the Thunder has been wrestling with in this series, and really since Durant left.

Do they need to build a system around Westbrook, the way Morey and D'Antoni have built one around Harden?

You can see the makings of that kind of a team in the way coach Thunder coach Billy Donovan has adjusted throughout the series, giving more run to versatile defenders like Taj Gibson and Jerami Grant and shooters like Alex Abrines and Doug McDermott. Of those four players, only Abrines began the season with the Thunder. The other three were acquired via trade as GM Sam Presti watched how his team played with Westbrook as the lone white hot star at center of the solar system.

There will surely be more adjustments this offseason. More complementary players added to the group around Westbrook, to help or at least try to.

But for now, while there is still a bit of the season left, Westbrook's instinct seems to be to impose himself on the game, and anyone or anything in front of him.