MVP candidates square off in first round of National Basketball Association playoffs

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Westbrook had more triple-doubles than any player in history this season, and he'll need a few more if Oklahoma City expects to make a deep playoff run. Houston won three of four meetings between the teams this season, despite Westbrook producing these extraordinary averages: 36.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 9.3 assists. But the Rockets have just three playoff series victories in the last 20 years - the same number Harden had in 2012 alone as the Thunder's sixth man - and Houston is more than tired of early playoff exits.

The playoffs open this weekend, highlighted by a must-see matchup in the first round between record-setting guards who are former teammates and now leading MVP candidates. Even with Harden's recent struggles - this eight-game stretch in which he is just 16th in the National Basketball Association in scoring (25.8 points per on 36.3% shooting overall and 27.6% from three-point range) with 10 assists and 8.8 rebounds per game as the Rockets have dropped five games - D'Antoni hopes that voters remember everything that came before. While everybody expected him to step things up this year after being spurned by Kevin Durant in the offseason, few could have predicted the guard becoming the second player in National Basketball Association history to average a triple-double for the entire season.

After trading James Harden just seven months before the series started, Harden led the Rockets to the No. 8 seed in the West to face the No. 1 seed Thunder. Or, will Harden guard Westbrook and Westbrook guard Beverley? For Westbrook, the next best players for the Thunder would be Steven Adams, Victor Olidipo, and Enes Kanter. The Admiral averaged 27.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.2 blocks, and 2.9 assists per game. And sometimes it is tough to chase stats, (or) whatever you want to say. Whether his shot is falling or not, he brings that intensity, that resolve.

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And now the Rockets are the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference going into the playoffs. Harden, who along with Westbrook is a front-runner for MVP, went to the bench, and both teams cleared their benches soon after that. Westbrook averaged 34 points per game, 8.3 assists per game and 8 rebounds per game against Houston.

That said, the Rockets will have the utmost confidence that feisty lockdown defender Patrick Beverley will be able to limit the Westbrook damage, and may even find a way to get under his skin as has become his trademark.

"LaMarcus Aldridge, who was supposed to be the team's second all-star behind Leonard, has taken a step backward". However, his teams have taken a big regression in either offensive efficiency or defensive efficiency in every postseason he's coached. But Robinson managed to put up 23.8 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, and 2.7 assists in six games. Watching the Jazz and their youngsters play under some expectations for the first time in their careers will be revealing one way or another.

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The Nashville Predators made quite a statement in the first two games of their first-round series against the Chicago Blackhawks. Colton Sissons battled his way to the front of the net and took advantage of a rebound chance off a shot from Pontus Aberg.

The Thunder went on to lose in five games to the Grizzlies in the second round. Westbrook led guards in rebounding with Harden second. "You've got to protect the 3-point line". We're going to make you a point guard. Game 1 should do a nice job of telling how the series will play out. But you know me.

It's going to be hard for anybody that gets through there, because they're in a hard conference with San Antonio, with the Clippers and, of course, the Golden State Warriors.

Westbrook has gone into most of the high-stakes games in his career with Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka at his side.

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Harden made a pair of free throws to cap the third quarter and leave Houston up 89-74 entering the fourth.

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