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What Else Does James Harden Have to Do to Prove He's NBA's Most Valuable Player

Published by Bleacher Report on Fri, 20 Mar 2015

With five players firmly entrenched in the NBA's MVP race, it's been impossible for one to create separation from the pack, to gain anything more than a temporary edge over a historically deep field.James Harden is doing his darnedest to make the impossible possible.LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook have all staked claim to the league's highest individual honor more than once. On Thursday night, though, with all four counterparts out of action, it was Harden who planted another one of his own flags on MVP island, leading the Houston Rockets to a 118-108 victory over the Denver Nuggets.Like he's done all season, Harden carried his team, pumping in a career-high 50 points to go along with 10 rebounds, four assists and one steal. Though he wasn't especially hot from the floor (12-of-27), he bullied his way into the lane, drawing contact with almost every drive, earning himself countless trips to the free-throw line, where he finished a mind-numbing 22-of-25, as only he can, per Basketball Insiders' Tommy Beer:By the time the final buzzer sounded and he walked off the Toyota Center's floor, Harden had taken a piece of Rockets history with him, according to Bleacher Report's Jonathan Feigen:It was obvious to everyone on hand that they had just witnessed something special. The crowd grew louder as Harden neared 50. When he drilled a right-corner three to seal the deal, his teammates wore more of a reaction than he did.Even Randy Foye and Kenneth Faried had an appreciation for the offensive display that buried their team, per Feigen and the Houston Chronicle's Jenny Dial Creech:This, though, was not merely a night of personal bests or significant franchise feats. In more ways than one, it was symbolicemblematic of Harden's entire season, indicative of everything he's done, a harbinger of everything he's still doing.For starters, members of the Rockets' 1994 and 1995 championship squads were in attendance, looking on as Harden picked apart Denver's defense, barreling and bodying his way toward the rim. It was enough to get the nostalgic juices flowing.But this quickly became a win in which the Rockets withstood yet another loss. Terrence Jones left the game and was taken to the hospital after suffering a rib injury during his 10-point first quarter. His prognosis is neither dire nor particularly reassuring:Not that this type of roadblock is anything new.Jones has missed more than half the season with injuries. The same goes for Dwight Howard, who, after sitting out against Denver, has now missed as many games this season as he did through his previous 10 combined (36).Losing two key contributors is enough to cripple any contender, let alone one that plays within an unforgiving Western Conference where all eight playoff seeds, no matter the order, are formidable threats.Somehow, the Rockets haven't just survived; they've thrived. They're on pace to secure more wins than they did last season, and with Thursday night's victory, only one game separates them from the Western Conference's second-best recordthe significance of which cannot be ignored.That No. 2 seed, currently held by the Memphis Grizzlies, may be just the separation Harden needs to nab his first-ever MVP award. He has everything else, after all.His stat lines are routinely ridiculous. Only Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and James have averaged at least 26.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, seven assists and 1.5 steals for an entire season before. Harden, along with Westbrook, has the opportunity to join them.He also leads the league in win shares, something five of the last six MVP winners have done.Harden even manages to stand out, albeit slightly, when pitted against his direct competition.Only one of the last 30 recipients has missed more than seven games during his winning season. James, Davis and Westbrook have each sat out at least 11 times.Twenty-eight of the last 30 winners played for teams that finished second or better in their respective conferences; not one came from an outfit that finished worse than third. Westbrook and Davis have no chance of meeting those unspoken requirements.Both Curry and James, meanwhile, are entering coach-imposed lulls.Neither the Golden State Warriors nor Cleveland Cavaliers have anything to play for the remainder of the regular season. The Warriors have an airtight hold on the West's No. 1 seed, and the Cavaliers have a two-game lead on the East's No. 2 slot without any hope of usurping the first-place Atlanta Hawks.While they have their minutes monitored and rest days, and while Westbrook and Davis scrap for the rights to eighth place, Harden has every reason to continue playing without pause.Second place doesn't mean a whole lot in the Western Conference. Contenders are, again, everywhere.Clinching second place is, at this point, the difference between playing the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs.Ergo, it's hardly a difference at all.It does, however, give the Rockets a tighter grasp on home-court advantage. They are guaranteed nothing as of now. Mathematically, they can still fall to seventh.For Harden's purposes, it boosts his MVP case, enhancing his appeal in just about every area imaginable."Heroism appeals to voters, and the narrative attached to Harden this year is that of a lone superstar single-handedly dragging an otherwise pedestrian team to the fringes of title contention," wrote Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes. "Nobody has the me-against-the-world angle nailed down like the Beard."That narrative becomes stronger, truer if Harden is able to will the Rockets into second place. It remains powerful so long as he and his team continue succeeding, continue winning, under less-than-ideal circumstances.So what must Harden do to prove he's the league MVP'Exactly what he did against the Nuggets.Exactly what he's done all season.*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Referenceunless otherwise cited.Follow @danfavale
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