You have to go back to the 2005-06 season and Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash to find an NBA MVP who didn’t play for one of the league’s top two or three teams in the regular season.
You might have seen another Thursday when Houston beat Oklahoma City by a bucket on TNT.
Wolves fans themselves get back-to-back looks this week at two of the early leaders when James Harden and the Rockets come to Target Center on Wednesday and Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.
Both are putting up NBA 2K numbers across a range of statistical categories, each man accomplishing nightly stat-stuffing not seen in some cases since Oscar Robertson played long ago.
Harden is doing so this time entrusted as his team’s point guard by offensive-genius Mike D’Antoni, who has guided the Rockets to 18 victories in their last 20 games and could have them headed toward the league’s top two or three teams if they can keep up this pace.
Westbrook is the relentless triple-double machine who has his Thunder aimed toward one of the West’s final playoff spot even after fellow superstar Kevin Durant left for Golden State last season.
The Warriors have Durant and Stephen Curry and Cleveland has LeBron James, but nobody is doing by himself what Harden and Westbrook are.
“You certainly have to put them in that category,” Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “What they’re doing for their teams is incredible every night: To be scoring, making plays and rebounding the ball the way they do is very unusual and it’s sort of unorthodox because of the size and power and quickness of those guys.”
Entering Saturday, Harden is first in the NBA in assists (11.9), fourth in scoring (28.3) and is averaging 8.3 rebounds a game. Robertson is the only player in NBA history who averaged 28 points, 11 assists and 8.0 rebounds a game.
In a New Year’s Eve victory over New York, Harden scored a career-high 53 points, tied a career high with 17 assists and had 16 rebounds. He’s the first player in NBA history to reach 50 points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists in a game.
Harden has done so after D’Antoni named him the Rockets starting point guard, which might be semantics mostly.
“He has always handled the ball a lot,” Thibodeau said. “I think it was a smart move because he’s handling it the majority of the time anyway. He always was a high-volume, pick-and-roll player. I know with Team USA, we basically did the same thing with him.”
Harden’s 26-point, 12-assist, eight-rebound game Thursday didn’t approach Westbrook’s 49-point, eight-rebound, five-assist night statistically, but the Rockets prevailed 118-116 over a Thunder team for which Westbrook has to do so much.
Westbrook has 16 triple-doubles already this season — the rest of the NBA has 26 combined — and joined Robertson as the only players in NBA history who averaged a triple-double into January.
When Karl-Anthony Towns talks about the need for his Wolves to become a “48-minute” team, the first example he cites is the game’s best 48-minute player, Westbrook.
By the time it matters for MVP voting, Harden may have his Rockets better than third in the West and fourth in the league and Westbrook may have his Thunder better than the West’s seventh-best team.
“Winning does matter, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a championship team,” Thibodeau said. “It usually, though, seems to be that way. You have to take everything into consideration. It’s what they do for their team. It’s not going to be an easy decision, and there’s still a long way to go. There are a lot of deserving guys and it’s compelling.”
• Philadelphia coach Brett Brown has Timberwolves envy, in particular this one stat: The young Wolves lead the league in minutes played by their starters, 651 minutes this season entering the weekend. “That’s an incredible privilege, a luxury, an opportunity to grow,” Brown said. “It reminds me of the old Oklahoma [City] team before they jumped into this thing in a real way. Give them 630 minutes and they played and learn and grow together, that’s very appealing. I’m very jealous. We’re trying to find that environment and grow our team.”
• Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau was none too thrilled earlier this season by his team’s showy dunking ability. Neither was he tickled with rookie Kris Dunn’s flashy dribble around Portland’s Shabazz Napier last week. “I don’t get wrapped up in that stuff,” Thibodeau said. “Just make a good player, make winning plays. When I go through a game, I want our guys to make winning plays. It’s not about a show. It’s about competition, and it’s about winning. Two points are two points. “I know what goes into winning. I hope we could get to the point where we’re less concerned about making it a show and more concerned about making it a competition.”
• TNT analyst Brent Barry on Houston superstar James Harden, who comes to Target Center on Wednesday: “There are flat-out advantages for a lefty in our league. You don’t see too many of them, and it’d difficult to defend what you don’t often prepare for. Add to that the fact that James Harden is a special player on the dribble. … You ask guys around the league, and many will tell you Harden is the toughest guy to cover.”
WOLVES WEEK AHEAD
Monday: 7 p.m. vs. Dallas
Wednesday: 7 p.m. vs. Houston
Friday: 7 p.m. vs. Okla. City
FSN for all games
Player to watch: Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas
He won’t be around forever — he already has missed 22 games this season because of an Achilles’ strain and another three because of illness — so appreciate the man who along with Kevin Garnett helped transform the power forward position in the NBA while you can.
“It was a Presidential order.”
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau after President Obama told his players during a White House visit last week that they need to play defense better.
Twitter: @JerryZgoda, E-mail: email@example.com, Blog: startribune.com/wolves