Russell Westbrook and James Harden will be playing in the most important playoff series of their careers tonight.
The battle against LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the rest of the favored Lakers squad will be a career-defining moment for the former MVPs and future first-ballot Hall of Famers.
There have always been questions about the two stars’ history of choking in big games. For Westbrook, it’s been his suspect decision-making in the clutch, for Harden, it’s his inability to rise to the moment.
Yet, after barely squeaking by Oklahoma City — their former squad — in a tightly contested seven-game series, the matchup vs. the Lakers gives both players an opportunity to change the narrative.
While they’ve both played on bigger stages, together and individually — most notably the 2012 Finals and a couple of Western Conference finals — there’s arguably never been this much pressure to win for both of these players.
Both are now 31 years old, and subsequently beginning the decline from their athletic primes. Westbrook continues to be plagued by injuries, and Harden will ultimately start feeling the impact of years of high usage in the iso-heavy, small ball Mike D’Antoni system.
This will be the most important playoff series of the two stars’ career, mainly because they don’t have many more chances to prove that they are winners.
However, an upset win against James and the top-seeded Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals in the bubble could prove to be a legacy-defining turn for both of these men.
And this might be the best chance for the two to get it done. All games will be played on a neutral court, and scheduled every other day, so the adjustments won’t be as thorough, and the Rockets themselves present many matchup problems for the Lakers’ big men on the offensive end.
The Rockets will have to find a way to guard 6-foot-10 Anthony Davis with 6-foot-7 Robert Covington, their tallest player on the floor for the majority of games.
A series win against the Lakers could change the stigma that has been circling both Harden and Westbrook forever. Not every star player in the league will win a championship, but every star needs a winning moment that defines their career.
Allen Iverson only had one game, when he hit a three and long-stepped over Ty Lue in the 2001 NBA Finals.
Damian Lillard’s moment is waving goodbye to Westbrook and Paul George after a game-winner from nearly 40 feet out sent the Thunder home packing early.
Reggie Miller has multiple moments but his most significant was his 8 points in 9 seconds vs. the Knicks that was key in allowing the Pacers to win that series in 1995.
Harden and Westbrook have yet to have their winning moment and need one desperately to change their basketball narratives. Without it, they’ll both just be good statistical players without any historical substance.
They have an opportunity against the Lakers to change their careers forever. Time will tell if they can make the most of it.