With three seconds left, James Harden stepped to the free throw line. He could hear the boos showered from the opposing fans in Denver. His team was up by two, but if he missed either of the free throws, Denver would have an opportunity to at least tie the game and send it into overtime. He promptly dribbled the ball, looked up and put it through the net.

Not once, but twice.

And just like that, the Houston Rockets took a 109-105 lead over the Denver Nuggets. The game was all but over. Jamal Murray launched a desperation heave 28 feet away from the hoop that missed and the Rockets had won 109-105. Harden, as always, looked bored and stone-faced. Despite the fact that Harden had just produced another 40 point game, and another triple double, his 19th of the season, the guard remained cool as a cucumber.

Because James Harden is a different breed. He lives for big moments and he delivers time and again. He has put this Rockets squad over the top and led them to a 48-22 record, good for third-best in the Western Conference. With 12 games remaining in the regular season, the Most Valuable Player race is between Harden and Oklahoma City Thunder superstar point guard Russell Westbrook. Many have claimed Westbrook should receive the award because the guard is averaging an astounding 31.7 points, 10.5 assists, and 10.3 rebounds a game. In fact, this writer was one of many so quick to crown the point guard with MVP earlier in the season.

However, I am here to tell you that the MVP award should not go to Westbrook, but instead to his close friend and former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate, James Harden. After a season where the Rockets underachieved and fired their head coach Kevin McHale before they had played ten games, the team has blossomed with first-year coach Mike D’Antoni. Harden moved from shooting guard to point guard and has transformed himself into the best playmaker in the league.

Harden leads the NBA with 11.2 assists per game. He has done so without any other player on the team averaging more than 16.4 points per game (Eric Gordon). And he has done this without a great big man to play pick and roll with. In fact, the Rockets best big man, Clint Capela, is only averaging 12.5 points per game. Harden has turned his rag-tag teammates into very good players by bringing out the best in them. One of the best ballhandlers and strongest guards in the league, any time Harden drives into the paint he is able to pick up two, even three defenders. When these defenders come over, he seamlessly kicks it out to Gordon, Ryan Anderson, or Trevor Ariza. The Rockets hit 14.6 threes per game, which is 1.5 more than the next-best team (Cleveland Cavaliers).

However, it has not just been Harden’s distribution which makes his MVP claim so strong. It is his efficiency. Harden is averaging over 29 points per game this season, but he does so while shooting 45 percent from the field. Meanwhile, Westbrook is shooting 42 percent from the field. With the game in crunch time, Harden does a great job of picking his spots. He seems to know when to shoot the ball and when to kick it to his teammates, who are able to convert on open looks.

Meanwhile, when Westbrook gets in late-game opportunities, you often have to hold your breath. Westbrook is a phenomenal player, but he too often tries to do too much. Instead of making the simple pass, Westbrook will often drive into the lane double-teamed, or pull up for a bad three-pointer, and inevitably miss. Westbrook’s play has kept Oklahoma City in many games, but it has also played them out of games due to his tendency to do too much. That is why the Thunder are 40-29 and sit 7.5 games back of the Rockets.

Both players are superstars, but what Harden has done with the Rockets is truly mesmerizing. Harden has taken a decent team and elevated them to greatness. He has motivated a squad which now has total confidence in its ability to win games. Oftentimes, Westbrook’s teammates sit around, watching and waiting for number zero to make the fantastic play. Harden makes his teammates better because they know they do not have to sit around and watch. They all have well-defined roles and play very well in these roles.

Harden’s leadership and brilliance have led the Rockets to the third-best record in the West. But if you know anything about the man behind the beard, you know he is not content with third. Harden’s push will lead his team into the playoffs and do not be surprised to see a deep postseason run from Houston. With James Harden at the helm, the Rockets can do anything. For the first time since 1994 and Hakeem Olajuwon, the MVP trophy will be returning to Houston. If Harden has anything to say about it, he could be raising multiple trophies this summer for his team.

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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