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James Harden's leadership fuels revamped Houston Rockets to West semifinals

27 April 2017, 03:47 | Myron Mathis

James Harden's leadership fuels revamped Houston Rockets to West semifinals

James Harden's leadership fuels revamped Houston Rockets to West semifinals

For everything that happened - from averaging a triple-double, to his battles both on and off the court with Durant, to his likely MVP win, to Oklahoma City's exit in the first round of the playoffs - this season will be remembered for the contributions Westbrook made to it, and for the way his presence captivated everyone, including both his legions of fans and his many detractors. He posted three more triple-doubles in the playoffs, but the Thunder ended up losing their first-round series to the Houston Rockets.

The Houston Rockets completed a gentleman's sweep of the Oklahoma City Thunder with a 105-99 home victory in Game 5.

There is time for reflections of Russell Westbrook's incredible season and all the ways OKC's flawed roster was exposed in this brief series, but from a Houston perspective, the most important element will go completely under the radar as the attention goes to the other series going on, the future of Westbrook, and the Thunder, and a million meaningless MVP takes.

When he goes out, every time we have to make them pay for that. Even after giving up offensive rebounds, after failing to get to so-called 50-50 balls (which were more like 70-30 balls Tuesday), after seeming like they were moments away from a big Rockets run, the Thunder hang.

That included their defense on Westbrook, said the Rockets' Patrick Beverly, who took exception to Westbrook's taunt that "no one can guard me". "You've got to tip your hat to Russell for the type of season that he had, the type of series that he had". One thing we saw a lot of in Game 5 was Donovan using Grant or Roberson (usually Roberson) as a screener, involving his man in the play.

Westbrook's line speaks volumes: 47 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, 15-of-34 shooting. But he shot two for 11 in the final period, missing all five three-point attempts.

But in less than three minutes - with Westbrook on the bench and the Rockets resting Harden - Houston outscored the Thunder 14-4, turning a five-point deficit into a five-point lead. Right? The guy did have a 57-point triple double, and has an National Basketball Association season-high 22 assist game this season.

"I've been excited all year, quite honestly", he said. And people think usage rate is wearing him down. The Rockets have some time to rest and get back into a rhythm before a huge second round series.

A new coach in Mike D'Antoni, who practically gave him a jet pack to go with a license to thrill. James Harden shot 24 percent, while Trevor Ariza finished at 19 percent, and his number is only that high because of a 3-for-5 outing in game four, the only game he drained a 3-pointer. But he eventually found a path to the basket and even when the drives wouldn't put the ball into the basket, it sent him to the free throw line where he thrived.

The platitude "defense wins championships" seems appropriate here, and the Rockets' team defense does not seem capable enough to carry them to the Finals.

"Their defence is very, very underrated", Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. Russ possessed the ball for 11.3 minutes per game and led Harden by almost a full minute when all was said and done Tuesday night.

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