James Harden was unanimous MVP in Game 1 vs. Thunder

Harden decisively outplayed Russell Westbrook in their first playoff showdown.

The NBA’s Most Valuable Player award may be for the regular season, but if there were a trophy handed out for the first game of the Houston RocketsOklahoma City Thunder playoff series, James Harden would’ve decisively claimed it.

Harden had his way with a porous Thunder defense, as Houston lit up Oklahoma City, 118-87 on Sunday. The Beard was unstoppable against his former team, slicing and dicing the Thunder up for 37 points on 13-of-28 shooting. Harden rounded his night out with nine assists, seven rebounds, and three steals.

He did it while firmly outplaying Russell Westbrook, who struggled with 22 points on 6-of-23 shooting, with 11 rebounds, seven assists, and nine turnovers.

The Rockets outscored the Thunder by 22 with their All-Star guard on the floor, and they did it in style.

Harden claimed at least one pair of ankles on Sunday, reducing Enes Kanter to ash before finishing with a graceful lay-in at the rim. He shook Andre Roberson out of the picture frame and literally shot the ball as if Jerami Grant didn’t exist.

Houston needed a big game from Harden and got it.

The Rockets only got 19 combined points out of Lou Williams and Eric Gordon. Had Patrick Beverley not exploded for 21 points in 26 minutes, the Thunder could have been much closer.

But Harden’s steady hand kept Oklahoma City at bay, one demeaning bucket at a time. The Thunder continuously switched big men onto the league’s most fearsome isolation scorer, and he made them pay repeatedly.

There’s a reason he’s one of two leading candidates for the league’s MVP award: He does his job and does it really, really well.

The Rockets have a bevy of shooters who make life much easier for Harden. But between Williams, Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Trevor Ariza, only 2-of-13 triples went down. That’s why Harden’s dependable scoring was of the utmost value to the Rockets on Sunday, and why it’ll be increasingly valuable as Houston attempts to rage through the postseason.

The Rockets will go as Harden goes. And at least for Game 1, James Harden went berserk.

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NBA playoffs 2017 scores, highlights, and updates: Rockets demolish Thunder, Bulls upset Celtics

James Harden put on a show to lead Houston to a blowout win in the final Game 1 of the day. Earlier, Jimmy Butler led the Bulls to an upset win over Boston, while Golden State and Washington earned victories.

Saturday gave us several thrilling playoff games. On Sunday, however, the No. 1 seeds in both conferences kick off their postseason, while the MVP duel that everyone wants to watch also begins.

The slate of games starts with Washington vs. Atlanta before moving onto the 67-win Warriors. With 140 (!) regular season wins the previous two seasons, Golden State has completed the most ever wins during a three season stretch, topping Michael Jordan’s late 90s Bulls. You would imagine they will have little trouble up against Portland, a team that finished the season strong but didn’t even finish the season over .500. (They ended the year at 41-41.)

Next comes Boston and Chicago, which is unexpectedly our No. 1 vs. 8 seed clash. Some pundits say this is a sneaky possible upset round, but I don’t see it. The Celtics have some flaws that may be exploited in the postseason, and Chicago ended the year strong, but it’s a stretch to say the Bulls — who were dysfunctional and massively underperforming this year — will be able to take advantage of those flaws for more than a couple games. Yes, Isaiah Thomas may struggle against a defense loading up to stop him, but Chicago has no individual defender who you could really expect to take on that assignment and consistently win.

The day concludes with a series that should be pure, unadulterated fun, even if it’s not as close as we think. Russell Westbrook, presumably the favorite to win MVP, heads up against James Harden, who is probably the runner-up right now. The two have played absurd series and are the beating heart of their teams’ entire offensive systems. They may not guard each other, except for moments where there’s scrambling or switches, but it should be a joy to watch the two face off against each other.

Here’s the complete schedule, with times and where you can watch.

Sunday’s schedule

All times Eastern

Wizards vs. Hawks: 1 p.m., Verizon Center, TNT

Warriors vs. Trail Blazers: 3:30 p.m., Oracle Arena, ABC

Celtics vs. Bulls: 6:30 p.m., TD Garden, TNT

Rockets vs. Thunder: 9 p.m., Toyota Center, TNT

How to watch

WatchTNT

Sling TV (has TNT, not ABC)

ABC Live Stream

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James Harden made Enes Kanter play Twister with a vicious set of crossovers

This was dirty.

There’s one place you don’t want to be if you’re not a confident perimeter defender, and that’s on an island with James Harden.

Enes Kanter took a first-class trip to that destination and got left behind after The Beard put a vicious set of moves on the Thunder big man on Sunday.

Kanter found himself isolated against Harden in the third quarter of the Rockets’ Game 1 matchup against the Thunder on Easter. That’s when the MVP-caliber guard rattled off a dirty set of moves that made the Oklahoma City bench cringe.

Harden’s flurry of crossovers made Kanter slip and slide all over the wing before he finally decided to stop the bleeding and finish at the rack. It was a graceful ending to an elegant salvo of directional shifts that left Oklahoma City’s big man in the dust.

It won’t be the last time Harden breaks a set of ankles during the playoffs, but if that’s any indication of what we’re going to see in the games to come, then it’s time to break out some popcorn. This is gonna be a good one.

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