OAKLAND, Calif — It’s not often that the Most Valuable Player and the MVP runner-up meet in the playoffs — 21 times before this season, to be exact. Even less are the number of times the matchup exceeded the hype.
In that case, you may want to stay tuned to the Western Conference finals, because James Harden and Stephen Curry have something special going on right now.
The monster showdown continued in Game 2 on Thursday night, and it was brilliant, fabulous, sensational, ridiculous, sick — pick whatever adjective you like. Harden hit a cold-blooded shot, then Curry matched it. Curry made a nifty pass, and Harden followed suit. And so it went for the better part of four memorable quarters before Curry and the Warriors finally prevailed by a single point.
When the haze cleared at Oracle Arena, Harden had gone off for 38 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists and four steals. Curry countered with 33 points — 15 on 3-pointers alone — six assists, three rebounds, one steal and one game-ending trap that ended with Harden failing to get off a final shot for the win.
“They’ve exceeded expectations,” Warriors guard Shaun Livingston said. “Harden continues to hit tough shots. He’s an MVP-caliber player. He has been efficient. I don’t know how much better he can play, but you know, we’ll see.”
If Harden has another level to his game, the Warriors may want to kidnap him for a week.
“Harden is a great player and he has a lot to prove,” Warriors center Festus Ezeli said. “He feels like he was overlooked, but Steph is deserving of the (MVP) honor. So they’re going to rise to the moment.”
This has been a great, old-fashioned shootout, Jerry West vs. Oscar Robertson style. West is a Warriors advisor now, and he may have to cover Harden next.
Even Klay Thompson has looked helpless at times, and he’s one of the league’s better defenders at shooting guard.
“When he’s hitting those step-back threes, you kind of just shake your head because you feel like you contested (the shots),” Thompson said. “You can’t let him get rolling. He’s quicker than he looks, so you have to get into his body.”
“He gets a head of steam going toward the rim, and it’s tough to stop,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Obviously, he can shoot that pull-up shot, and he can get all the way to the rim, and he’s a great passer.”
Um, that pretty much covers it, right?
After two games, Harden has the advantage in rebounds (21-9), assists (18-12) and steals (7-3), while Curry holds a 67-66 edge in points. But as was the case in the regular season, the Bay Area bomber has had the better of it on the scoreboard, the only place that matters, really. Curry’s team hasn’t lost to Harden’s team in six tries this season.
The difference between the two best players at their position: Curry has displayed more of the clutch gene in the final minutes.
Harden scored a dozen points in the fourth quarter, but it was the two he didn’t score that will be remembered more.
Harden had the ball twice on the final possession but didn’t get a shot off either time. Why The Beard passed to Dwight Howard the first time, not even his barber knows for sure. When Howard returned the ball to Harden, Curry and Thompson did well to smother him, and Curry batted the ball away while the clock ran out.
“They did a good job to having two guys on me, so I didn’t attack,” Harden said. “I looked up and saw a red jersey, and it was Dwight, so I tried to throwing it back to him. At that time, I thinking there were five seconds on the clock, so I tried to get the ball back. There were still two guys right there. When I watched the film, it was a tough play.”
As competitive as their teams have been thus far, Harden and Curry have been even better. After the series, let MVP1 and MVP2 play a best-of-seven in 21 for charity, I say.
A matchup this good shouldn’t end so soon.
Paul Ladewski is a veteran Chicago sports journalist who recently relocated to the Bay Area and a contributor to SheridanHoops.com.