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Harden and Westbrook face off to see who is the most valuable to their team

The NBA most-valuable-player debate has created more angles than a protractor.

Statistics. Triple-doubles. Win shares. Usage rates. Franchise value.

Beard vs. snarl. Cunning and control vs. passion and power.

Everything that Houston’s James Harden and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook did this season was for this: a playoff stage. The storybook script has the former teammates sharing that stage starting Sunday afternoon in Houston.

Voting for the MVP happens before the playoffs start. But it still comes with a postseason caveat. Harden vs. Westbrook. Who won?

It is a season-defining question that could prove unfair to Westbrook, who has the lesser supporting cast and a need to perform otherworldly for the Thunder to advance. It also belittles how spectacular Harden was to lift last season’s .500 team to this season’s team with the NBA’s third-best record.

“It all depends on how you describe it,” Westbrook said of a MVP definition. “It could be the best player on the best team with the best record. It all depends on how you value it. But my job is to go out and play at a high level every night and if that’s an MVP level, that’s what it is.”

Because of Houston’s scoring depth, the Rockets won three of four regular-season meetings even though Westbrook (36.3 ppg, 9.3 apg, 9.0 rpg, 44.7 FG%) individually outperformed Harden (20.5 ppg, 12.3 apg, 7.3 rpg, 34.3 FG%). Each team features a defender — Andre Roberson for Oklahoma City and Patrick Beverly for Houston — to make dominance an arduous task and possibly leave this series up to the co-stars.

The Thunder can battle the Rockets’ small ball with big lineups and rebounding dominance, but its offense is often Westbrook-centric. Oklahoma City went 33-9 when Westbrook had one of his NBA-record 42 triple-doubles and 14-26 when he did not.

“Does he [Westbrook] have it in him to have four games where he will have those crazy numbers and OKC pulls a big upset?” said TNT analyst Kevin McHale, who believes that the Thunder can win “dirty” low-scoring games but there won’t be enough of them.

There is vengeance to both stars’ season quest. For Westbrook, there was a burn for the way the Thunder blew a 3-1 lead to Golden State in last year’s Western Conference finals and the way Kevin Durant subsequently left his side. For Harden, he fell off all-NBA teams last season for a disappointing 41-41 Rockets season.

Harden has been overwhelmed by assistance, from making Mike D’Antoni coach to adding shooters Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Lou Williams to getting rid of pace-and-space buzzkill Dwight Howard.

Westbrook could use Victor Oladipo to rise on his first playoff stage as the Thunder’s scoring sidekick, but the midseason trade for Taj Gibson already bumped Oklahoma City’s starting lineup to among the league’s best. Rotations tighten in the postseason, particularly with ample rest between games.

“As great of a season as LeBron [James] and Kawhi [Leonard] have had, the two main guys on the card — the main draw — have been James Harden and Russell Westbrook,” TNT analyst Reggie Miller said.

“Who can stop the other?”

1. GOLDEN STATE

67-15 (Home: 36-5; Road: 31-10)

8. PORTLAND

41-41 (Home: 25-16; Road: 16-25)

Season series: Warriors, 4-0.

Key stats: Golden State’s point differential (plus-11.6) was fourth-best in NBA history. Portland had the NBA’s fourth-best net rating (plus-5.3) after the All-Star break.

Outlook: This is an odd rematch of the 2016 conference semifinals, considering how different Golden State is with Kevin Durant and how Portland had to win 17 of its last 23 games just to get here. The Warriors’ third consecutive .800-plus season gives them the winningest three-year NBA run ever, topping the 1996-98 Chicago Bulls. Stocked with two MVPs (Durant and Stephen Curry) and a defensive player of the year frontrunner (Draymond Green), Golden State beat Portland four times this season but each win was before the Blazers acquired Jusuf Nurkic, the tide-turning center who will return from a leg fracture this series. Oakland is a homecoming for Damian Lillard, who teams with C.J. McCollum for a high-scoring guard matchup against Curry and Klay Thompson.

Prediction: Warriors in four.

Game 1 Sunday at Golden State, 12:30 p.m.

Game 2 Wednesday at Golden State, 7:30 p.m.

Game 3 April 22 at Portland, 7:30 p.m.

Game 4 April 24 at Portland, 7:30 p.m.

Game 5 April 26 at Golden State, TBD

Game 6 April 28 at Portland, TBD

Game 7 April 30 at Golden State, TBD

Games 5-7 if necessary

2. SAN ANTONIO

61-21 (Home: 31-10; Road: 30-11)

7. MEMPHIS

43-39 (Home: 24-17; Road:19-22)

Season series: 2-2.

Key stats: San Antonio posted the NBA’s best defensive rating (103.5 points allowed per 100 possessions). Memphis shot a league-worst 43.5% from the field.

Outlook: This is old hat to these teams, with four playoff meetings in seven years, including another No. 2-No. 7 series last year when the Spurs got a blowout-filled sweep. It does not bode much better for Memphis with defensive stalwart Tony Allen shelved by a calf strain. He would guard Kawhi Leonard, the league’s best two-way MVP candidate. Memphis incorporated three-pointers this season and moved Zach Randolph to the bench but must lean on grit-and-grind to upset a team bringing Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Jonathan Simmons, David Lee and Pau Gasol off the bench. It will be physical, an interesting facet with the Gasol brothers squaring off.

Prediction: Spurs in four.

Game 1 Today at San Antonio, 5 p.m.

Game 2 Monday at San Antonio, 6:30 p.m.

Game 3 Thursday at Memphis, 6:30 p.m.

Game 4 April 22 at Memphis, 5 p.m.

Game 5 April 25 at San Antonio, TBD

Game 6 April 27 at Memphis, TBD

Game 7 April 29 at San Antonio, TBD

Games 5-7 if necessary; Times PDT

3. HOUSTON

55-27 (Home: 30-11; Road: 25-16)

6. OKLAHOMA CITY

47-35 (Home: 28-13; Road:19-22)

Season series: Rockets, 3-1.

Key stats: Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook had the first triple-double season average in 55 years, posting 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game. Houston shattered its NBA record for three-point attempts, averaging 40.3 a game.

Outlook: The MVP votes already have been submitted, but this series will go a long way to settle it in many minds. Free-firing Houston has gone from an eighth seed last year to the NBA’s third-best record this year with Mike D’Antoni moving James Harden to point guard. He has more help than Westbrook, as the Rockets showed in head-to-head meetings when Harden shot only 34.3% against Andre Roberson and company. Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza and Lou Williams provide scoring depth. Oklahoma City has been the NBA’s best rebounding percentage team (55.0) since the All-Star break.

Prediction: Rockets in six.

Game 1 Sunday at Houston, 6 p.m.

Game 2 Wednesday at Houston, 5 p.m.

Game 3 Friday at Oklahoma City, 6:30 p.m.

Game 4 April 23 at Oklahoma City, 12:30 p.m.

Game 5 April 25 at Houston, TBD

Game 6 April 27 at Oklahoma City, TBD

Game 7 April 29 at Houston, TBD

Games 5-7 if necessary; Times PDT

4. CLIPPERS

51-31 (Home: 29-12; Road: 22-19)

5. UTAH

51-31 (Home: 29-12; Road: 22-19)

Season series: Clippers, 3-1.

Key stats: The Clippers tied Denver for the NBA’s best offensive rating (112.6 points per 100 possessions) after the All-Star break. Utah played the league’s slowest pace this season (91.6 possessions per 48 minutes).

Outlook: Utah is on the rise with its first playoff visit since 2012, the last season that the Clippers had this few victories. The Clippers have the stigma of having never gotten out of the second round. They also face the unlikely proposition of losing Chris Paul, Blake Griffin or J.J. Redick to summer free agency. The Clippers have home-court advantage because they won the season series against Utah, a team that survived a rash of significant injuries. Jazz center Rudy Gobert sustained the Jazz with his rim protection on the league’s No. 1 scoring defense but now he faces the league’s field-goal percentage champ — Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (71.4).

Prediction: Clippers in seven.

Game 1 Today at Los Angeles, 7:30 p.m.

Game 2 Tuesday at Los Angeles, 7:30 p.m.

Game 3 Friday at Utah, 7 p.m.

Game 4 April 23 at Utah, 6 p.m.

Game 5 April 25 at Los Angeles, TBD

Game 6 April 28 at Utah, TBD

Game 7 April 30 at Los Angeles, TBD

Games 5-7 if necessary; Times PDT

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