It’s only fitting that the long-awaited Western Conference finals showdown between the Warriors and Rockets came together on Tuesday night in tit-for-tat fashion.
Golden State and Houston opened the 2017-18 season, some six and a half months ago, with a down-to-the-wire thriller in Oracle Arena. Kevin Durant released a baseline jumper as time expired, seemingly giving Golden State a 123-122 win. But the video review showed Durant’s fingers still cradling the ball as the horn sounded, nullifying his bucket and granting an unexpected victory to Houston. The arena exploded, then deflated. The Warriors celebrated, then walked off in disappointment. The Rockets bent over in frustration, then smiled sheepishly.
The West’s top two teams—and perhaps the NBA’s top two teams— have been on a crash course since that moment of indecision and pendulum swings in mid-October. Houston ranked first in wins, point differential and three-pointers. Golden State paced the league in offensive efficiency, coasted to the league’s third-best record, and landed four players on the All-Star team.
In the playoffs, they have both rarely been tested, with the Rockets barely edging the Warriors for the postseason’s top point differential and with the two teams sharing league-best 8-2 records. Houston put away Utah with a 10-point victory in Game 5 at home. A few hours later, Golden State sent New Orleans packing with a nine-point victory in Game 5 at home. As always, step for step.
In truth, this rendition of Warriors/Rockets dates back even further than opening night. Golden State eliminated Houston from the playoffs in both 2015 and 2016, clamping down on James Harden in both series. Since their most recent match-up two years ago, the teams even took turns dominating the off-season: The Warriors won the summer of 2016 by signing Kevin Durant, and the Rockets owned the summer of 2017 by orchestrating a blockbuster trade for Chris Paul.
Paul’s arrival adds layers of complexity, drama and emotional baggage. Since Steve Kerr arrived as Warriors coach in 2014-15, Harden is 2-8 against the Warriors in the playoffs and 5-18 overall. During that same period, Paul is 3-9 against Golden State. The two All-NBA guards joined forced last summer for this exact purpose: to maximize their shot at dethroning the champs. Paul, who will be playing in the conference finals for the first time in his career, burst through the door with an electric 41-point, 10-assist, 0-turnover performance to close out the Jazz. He’s healthy, ready and playing for the best team of his career.
Harden has clearly benefited. When Utah’s defense loaded up to deny his three-pointers, the Rockets’ attack wasn’t stymied like it was last postseason against the Spurs. Paul unlocked the Jazz’s defense with his lethal mid-range game, and offseason additions P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute lived up to their billing as impact defenders. Over the last month, Harden has carried Paul through off nights and vice versa. Houston lacked that type of elite scoring and playmaking balance in its previous playoff losses to Golden State, as Harden found himself swallowed up by endless waves of long, active and intelligent defenders.
With Stephen Curry back from a knee sprain and playing well enough to score 28 points in Game 5 versus the Pelicans, the Warriors deserve to enter the West finals as clear favorites. Under Kerr, they are 13-1 in postseason series over the last four years with the only loss coming to LeBron James in the 2016 Finals.
Even so, it’s worth noting that Houston has a strong case as the toughest playoff test of Golden State’s four-year run. Among Warriors playoff opponents since 2015, the Rockets have won the most games (65), compiled the highest point differential (+8.5) and posted the best offensive efficiency rating (115.5). The Rockets can play big with center Clint Capela, one of the breakout stars of the 2018 playoffs, and they can go small with interchangeable lineups. They can win with both offense and defense. Unlike the Pelicans, they have multiple wing defenders to throw on Durant. While they don’t have a perfect counter for Curry, the Rockets do have the next best thing in Paul.They also have Harden, the odds-on MVP favorite who enters the series playing the smartest and deadliest basketball of his career.
This season’s defining question was whether a challenger would prove capable of making the Warriors work harder than they had to during their 16-1 postseason sprint to the 2017 title. All these months later, the Rockets are ready to take their best shot yet.