The way New Orleans Pelicans guard Eric Gordon sees it, Houston Rockets guard James Harden is the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for this season.
More valuable than Seth Curry, who has led the Golden State Warriors to the best record in the league. More valuable than Russell Westbrook, who as a triple-double machine of late has kept the Oklahoma Thunder’s hopes alive for a playoff berth. And more than the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James or the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, who has impacted the game in more ways than any other player.
“Harden has the lead on MVP,” Gordon said. “With (center) Dwight Howard missing so many games, and the way (Harden) has been playing, he’s just been carrying them.”
With Howard sidelined for 23 games after a procedure on his right knee, the Rockets (47-33, third in the West) have gone 15-8. Howard will make his return Wednesday night against the Pelicans (37-33) at the Smoothie King Center.
Harden, 6-foot-5, has been a triple-threat offensive guard at its finest, making outside shots, driving to the basket and passing off to teammates. He is a smooth operator in the pick-and-roll.
The biggest concern when he drives is that he draws fouls, Gordon and Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. Harden averages 10.1 free throws per game, making 8.8. He has attempted 698 free throws, 167 more than second-place Westbrook, and has made 606, 158 more than Westbrook.
“When he gets to the free-throw line, it allows them to set their defense,” Williams said.
The Pelicans, however, are 2-0 this season against the Rockets in large part because of their defense against Harden. In the two games combined, he has gone 3-of-5 on free throws, not even getting an attempt during the teams’ last meeting Jan. 2. And with point guard Jrue Holiday leading the defense, New Orleans has held Harden to 13-of-36 (36.1 percent) shooting, including 8-of-23 in the first meeting Dec. 18.
However, Holiday has been out since Jan. 12 with a lower right leg stress reaction. Much of the defense against the opponents’ primary ball-handler has fallen to Gordon, who at 6-4 is the Pelicans’ shooting guard. Point guard Tyreke Evans, 6-6, usually guards the opponents’ guards off the ball.
Since the last time the teams met, the Pelicans have added guard-small forward Quincy Pondexter, also 6-6.
“We don’t know who’s going to guard him, maybe me or Quincy,” Gordon said. “A guy like him, you want to see him shoot as many jump shots as possible. We know he can hit them, but when he gets to the free-throw line, that’s a different game in itself.”
The defense against Harden eliminated his options and made it difficult on his teammates. In each game, the Pelicans held the Rockets to less than 40 percent shooting, including less than 25 percent on 3-point attempts.
“We played good defense, and we made shots,” Williams said.
The Pelicans shot 46.3 percent in the first game in Houston and 53 percent in a 111-83 blowout at the Smoothie King in the second game. The 28-point margin of victory was the largest in New Orleans’ franchise history against the Rockets.
And it came two days after a heartbreaking two-point loss in overtime at San Antonio. Coming off three consecutive road losses, the Pelicans said they are looking forward to another stellar bounce-back performance.
Limiting turnovers would be a big step in that direction. New Orleans committed 38 in its past two games. Before those two, it had two games of 18, one of 17 and one of 19 during a five-game stretch between March 6-15.
The Pelicans brought back point guard Toney Douglas and released combo guard Elliot Williams. Williams’ second 10-day contract with the team expired Tuesday, and the Pelicans would have had to pay him in excess of $125,000 — the prorated minimum salary — the rest of the way to retain him. Williams said Evans’ ankle injury was the reason for the decision. “With Tyreke’s situation, we needed a point guard more than a combo guard,” Williams said. On Monday, Williams said the team’s primary backup point guard, Norris Cole, also is ailing. Douglas was waived Feb. 19, one day after signing his second 10-day deal with the Pelicans and after they acquired Cole from Miami. Cole and Douglas were teammates with the Heat last season. … Center Omer Asik (right calf strain) practiced Tuesday. Evans also worked. … Holiday participated in shooting drills with no brace or sleeve on his lower right leg, but Williams said he doesn’t know when he’ll return. Ryan Anderson, out since Feb. 21 with a sprained right knee, continues to practice, but Williams said he is not expected to return soon.