ON A ROLL

Joel Blank: This time, the MVP is James Harden's to lose

Barring a collapse, James Harden will be the MVP. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Hey James: It's yours to lose.

As we put the All-Star Weekend and unofficial midway point of the season behind us, there is still plenty to be decided between now and the end of the regular season— and that doesn't even include the playoffs. With postseason seeding still to be determined, as well as division titles and of course home court advantage, there is a ton to sort out during these final two and a half months of the regular campaign. With all of that uncertainty, there does seem to be one thing that is already decided, and that would be James Harden as your 2017-18 MVP.

The Beard has arguably been the most consistent player in the NBA over the past four seasons. He has twice been runner-up to the MVP trophy, losing to both Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook. This season, he has taken it to another level both individually and as a result his team has reaped the benefits. Harden leads the league in scoring at over 31 points per game as well as being No. 1 in points scored, 3-pointers attempted and made, and has the team single-game scoring recored this season with 60 points against the Magic. He is also second in the league in assists per game, ninth in steals and is grabbing 5 rebounds per contest. The face of the Houston Rockets franchise also has the team playing at an all-time regular-season high level. The Rockets have the best record in the NBA and have put together the best regular season record at the All-Star break for a Houston team in franchise history with a 44-13 record. Sure the team added Chris Paul, but CP3 missed 14 of the team's first 15 games and has only played in 39 of the team's 57 contests. Harden has improved his game statistically across the board every year he has been with the Rockets and this year is no exception. He is averaging more points than he has ever averaged in his career, while improving his field goal and 3-point shooting percentage and still shoots over 86% from the free throw line.

Every year, there are always a handful of players that stand out from the rest and are in consideration for the greatest individual award given out in every NBA season. Kyrie Irving and the Celtics got off to a hot start and he was immediately thrown into the discussion. Jimmy Butler has the Minnesota Timberwolves playing at a level that they have not seen in over a decade so he will get some votes. Like it or not, as the greatest player on the planet today, LeBron James has his name in the discussion once again and deserves it with his numbers as impressive as ever, even in his 15th season. That said, those players and their respective teams have had their ups and downs and none of them have been as consistent as the Beard and his boys from H-Town.

The biggest difference between Harden’s previous runner-up MVP campaigns and this season seems to be the hype. When the Beard came in second to Steph Curry, media was constantly talking about how the Warriors were on a pace to be the greatest regular-season team of all time and Curry was making a case for being the greatest shooter in league history. When James was runner-up to Russell Westbrook a year ago, the talk of the basketball world and all the media outlets that follow it was the historic season that Russ put together as he chased the legend of Oscar Robertson and  averaged a triple-double for the season. This year is different as it seems that everyone is talking about the Rockets and giving them a legitimate chance to dethrone the Warriors in the Western Conference and quite possibly win it all. So it seems as if the stars have aligned and there is a new day dawning for James Harden and the Houston Rockets.

So the MVP is James Harden's to lose. The bigger question is, is the NBA title as well? For as good as Harden and the Rockets have been during the regular season, we all know that awards are given for the regular season but legends are defined by the postseason. The beard still has a lot to prove in the playoffs and all eyes will be on him this year to see if he can erase the ghosts of the past and prevent yet another disappointing, premature elimination. The microscope is on, will James Harden pass his "Finals" exam? It's yours to lose Beard, maybe in more ways than one?

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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