NBA: James Harden dazzles, LeBron James answers

Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons (right) knocks the ball from Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on March 1, 2018.
Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons (right) knocks the ball from Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James during the second half at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on March 1, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS/USA TODAY SPORTS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The National Basketball Association (NBA) can sometimes feel like an endless game of one-upmanship, but LeBron James took it to another level on Thursday (March 1). A day after James Harden of the Houston Rockets had a highlight for the ages when he faked a player nearly out of his shoes before calmly hitting a three-pointer, James answered with a play that rivaled Harden's in terms of court wizardry.

James, whose Cleveland Cavaliers were in a tight contest at home against the Philadelphia 76ers, was driving to the hoop when he found himself confronted by one of the few NBA players he could not run through: Joel Embiid, the 76ers' 23-year-old All-Star center.

James was also blocked on his right side, where Tristan Thompson of the Cavaliers was tangled up in a screen with Robert Covington of the 76ers.

No matter. James, who was named the Eastern Conference's player of the month for February earlier in the day, dribbled once to his left, brought the ball around his back, tossed it through Thompson's legs, and then leapt over Embiid's outstretched leg and regained control of the ball inside the key. With a clear path to the basket, he finished with a left-handed layup.

James, who finished the game with 30 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, was in no mood to celebrate after his team lost by a score of 108-97, but he summed up his acrobatics by telling reporters, "That's probably one of the best plays I've had in my career."

Embiid, as he often does after wins, got the last laugh on Twitter. He had 17 points, 14 rebounds and six assists in the game and his post managed to celebrate his team's victory while also appearing to accelerate his recruiting pitch for James, who can be a free agent this summer.

There was a great deal of debate online in the immediate aftermath of the play as to how intentional it was. Some assumed James had lost control of the ball, while others believed the entire thing was intentional. James, who was unaware of the full scope of the play until he was shown a video of it at halftime, said it was a little of both.

"It was planned for me to go behind my back; it was not planned to go between his legs," he said. "But some of the best alley-oops are some of the worst passes."

Harden's play carried no such ambiguity - except, perhaps, for armchair referees who declared a push-off or a travel. Early in Houston's eventual 105-92 victory on Wednesday, Harden was being guarded near half-court by Wesley Johnson of the Los Angeles Clippers.

Harden feigned a drive before stopping on a dime to go back behind the three-point line. Johnson, trying to match the change in gears, ended up falling backward onto the court, leaving Harden without a Clippers player within 10 feet. Harden, the favourite for the NBA's Most Valuable Player Award, then rubbed the Clippers' faces in the misfortune by taking his time in setting up the three-point shot as his team-mates went berserk on the sideline.

Asked about Harden's play before his game on Thursday, James gushed about his rival player's ability.

"That was one of those moves that sometimes you dream about having," James said. "It was a perfect storm, because at that time they were pretty handily winning that game, they were up like 28-7 at that point and gets that step-back - one of his patented moves - and the crowd went crazy, his team-mates went crazy. That's a play that will be in his highlight reel the rest of his life."

The dueling plays came as the MVP race between Harden and James was beginning to heat up. Harden is averaging a league-leading 31.3 points along with 8.9 assists and 5.2 rebounds, and his team has the best record in the NBA. James entered Thursday with averages of 26.7 points, nine assists (a career-high) and 8.4 rebounds a game, but he could get more credit from voters for being the lone constant on a team that has been aggressively rebuilt during the season.

James, in discussing Harden's play, made it clear that when it comes to highlight-reel plays, just about anything is allowed regardless of the egos of those being humiliated.

"Listen, man, it's all part of the game," James said.

"This is a game of showmanship, but at the same time this is a game of swag and whatever you've got to do, man. Once you're in between these lines of 94, ain't no rules. The only rules is don't try to hurt nobody purposely."

With both Harden's and James' plays, the gauntlet has been thrown down for the league's other MVP candidates, namely Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans and Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. If they want to keep pace, they will need to come up with something equally - or more - awe-inspiring and stylish.