HOUSTON — Respect is earned, not given.
And this year is no different. Coming off a season where his greatness was not fully appreciated, he’s had to remind everyone, including those who declined to vote him onto any of the All-NBA teams last season, of his abilities.
So when the Western Conference Player of the Week spoke with deference about his former teammate, Russell Westbrook, who, along with Harden, are the first players to average at least 30 points and 10 assists through the first 10 games since Oscar Robertson, everybody listened.
"It's Russ. It’s a one-man show," Harden said on Tuesday.
That’s not altogether false. Westbrook is averaging 32.0 points, 9.9 assists and 9.7 rebounds per game. Harden is right there with him, forcing his way to an MVP-caliber stat line: 30.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and a league-leading 12.6 assists per contest.
"We bring a lot of the same things," Harden said. "Just guys looking to create. Create shots for their teammates and impact the game at a high level."
When comparing the two, think of Westbrook as a Lamborghini Aventador and Harden as a Bentley Continental GT Speed—it’s the primal roar versus the uniquely rich purr, the chest pound versus stirring the pot.
Like the Lambo, Westbrook is powerful and blindingly fast, pumping out an insane amount of horsepower, his emotions revved up and grumbling as he goes from baseline to baseline in the blink of an eye. Then he either pulls up for one of his patented high-release jumpers or hits another gear and goes in for one of his move-out-of-my-freaking-way tomahawk slams.
Harden, like the Bentley, is fast, too—but deceptively so. He doesn’t seem to exert as much energy as Westbrook, making it look easier and smoother—like a Sunday cruise down the Pacific Coast Highway. When he has the ball in his hands, however, he’s crafty and nimble, his Eurostep aerodynamically sound. He decelerates much quicker than everyone else, creating gaps, space and room to operate. From there, he can improvise and attack the lane or launch one of his patented step-back threes.
On paper, Harden and Westbrook are twinning. They are Nos. 2 (Harden) and 3 (Westbrook) in player efficiency rating. They are nip and tuck on win shares (2.6 for Harden and 2.1 for Westbrook) and offensive box plus/minus (13.3 for Harden and 12.5 for Westbrook).
Even the turnovers are similar: Westbrook has a total of 58, Harden has 57.
Both are the undisputed faces of their respective franchises. Both are putting up ridiculous numbers. Both are scoring at will. Both are threatening The Big O’s magical 1961-62 season. Both are successfully stepping out of their comfort zones to facilitate for their teammates. Both are now leaders of men.
"Two great players on two good teams," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Their games are a little bit different; the pace is different. But the end result are two really, really good players."
"They both bring the same things to their teams," Rockets forward Trevor Ariza added. "Russ is the main player on their team. James is our leader. We go as he goes. The same with Oklahoma City. As Russ goes, his team goes."
As they go head-to-head Wednesday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena, Harden is careful to temper expectations of the one-on-one matchup that everyone’s anticipating.
"There’s no one-on-one individual battles," Harden said. "It’s just us trying to get as many wins as we can."
When pressed, though, Harden admitted he enjoys competing against Westbrook, putting his own twist on Ric Flair’s famous catchphrase for getting respect: "To be the man, you gotta beat the man."
"I love [playing] games against really good competitors," Harden said. "It’s always going to be a battle. That’s the beauty of this league. You get an opportunity to compete with some of the best players in the world. In order to be the best, you gotta play against the best."
Rockets Insider's Notebook
Clint Capela's Block Party
Clint Capela played perhaps his best game of the season during the Rockets' 115-88 win over the Philadelphia 76ers Monday night at the Toyota Center.
In 26 minutes, the Switzerland native scored eight points, grabbed 13 rebounds and protected the rim with a vengeance, finishing with a career-high five blocks.
"Last night might have been his best game overall," D’Antoni said. "The biggest thing is his energy level’s getting up to where he now can sustain 25 minutes. We’d like to get him to 30 minutes of running the floor, blocking shots, rebounding. He’s progressing real nice."
Harden is equally impressed with the young center's commitment to improving his game.
"He wants to get better," Harden said. "He works extremely hard on the court and in the weight room. He just wants to get better. You got a young guy like that, continues to work and get better, great things will happen for him. We’re all seeing it."
Playoffs? You Kidding Me?
The Rockets are only 10 games into the season, but they're already thinking about the playoffs, using that mindset to combat the malaise of the long 82-game stretch.
"Every game is a playoff implication game," D'Antoni said. "We talk about it all the time. Memphis does it that way, other teams. Every game, you don't want to have the mistake where you can throw away a game in November and come back and say 'Oh, we have to beat Golden State to get the fourth seed.' You don't want that. So they all have implications. You can't take one game lightly."
Harden agrees with his coach's outlook, but Ariza is not so sure that now is the time to focus on the postseason.
"I think it definitely is too early to talk about playoffs," Ariza said. "We're still trying to get really comfortable with what we're doing. If we continue to focus on ourselves, offensively and defensively, cut down on mistakes, play as hard as we can, those are the habits we have to build to be ready."
Maurice Bobb covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseReport