The Houston Rockets are trying to make NBA fans go against their better judgment. The team with the league’s best record already has two win streaks of at least 14 games. They have the presumptive MVP in James Harden, elite point guard Chris Paul, one of the best young centers in the league, thousands of perimeter shooters and a bench that can defend with the best of them. There is reason to believe that the Rockets could make things interesting if they do in fact match up with the Warriors in the playoffs, but ultimately, it will all be for nothing.
The Rockets trot out one of the best offenses of all time, night in and night out. Their top 10 defense is the truly scary aspect of their potential. They have two elite players, one in the prime of his career. They’re 34-2 when Harden, Paul, and Clint Capela all play together. But the Warriors’ offense is just as good, if not deadlier. The Warriors also have a top 10 defense and four elite players who are all in their prime. In comparison to the Warriors, Houston is nothing short of fool’s gold.
The regular season doesn’t mean nearly as much to Golden State as it does to Houston. If you don’t think that the Rockets are gunning for that No. 1 seed in the West solely so they can hold that over Golden State’s head, it’s time to open up those eyes. The Warriors have been there, done that. They hardly need homecourt advantage. They could slide all the way down to the eighth seed and still sweep the first two rounds before challenging whoever in the Western Conference Finals. 73-9 has been done. There’s no need to chase a goal like that anymore, and they know that.
Houston, on the other hand, wants home court. Harden wants the MVP award. The team wants to prove they belong. He deserved it last season and the award would be a sham if he doesn’t take it home this year. Finishing the season with the best overall record will all but guarantee the MVP for Harden. This season he won’t have to worry about struggling toward the finish line either, that’s why the team brought in Chris Paul. They play separately way more often than they play together, but that’s by design. Staggering their two best players has allowed the Rockets to exhibit an all-out offensive attack for 48 minutes. The Warriors, however, will have at least two All-Stars in the game at all times, no matter what.
Recency bias is turning skeptics into believers. The Rockets have been great this season, but the Warriors have been better for years. This is essentially the same Warriors team that nearly carved its way to the first 16-0 record in playoff history just last June. I say essentially because their biggest roster move was adding rookie Jordan Bell (and Swaggy P), who everyone (and I do mean everyone) knew was going to be a great addition to their team. Thanks again for that one, Chicago.
When the Warriors really turn things up to the best of their ability, it’s become a basketball spectacle unlike any other. It’s why they ended last season on a 15-1 run before going 16-1 in the playoffs. When the engine heats up, it can’t be cooled down. When the Thunder beat them by 20 back in early February, heads briefly turned completely inside out, only to revert back to normal when the Warriors beat the Thunder by 32 less than three weeks later.
If the Warriors want to embarrass you in front of millions of people on national television, then that is exactly what they’ll do. They aren’t overexerting themselves. There is nothing to chase this season except the NBA Championship. With that mindset, all they have to do is be ready by the time April hits.
With all this being said, I’d be shocked if a Rockets-Warriors playoff matchup didn’t go at least six games. Taking the Warriors to six games might be the toughest challenge Golden State faces all postseason and probably their toughest challenge since the 2016 NBA Finals. The Rockets are the only team in the NBA that can make life harder for one of the two or three most talented teams ever. That alone speaks volumes about both teams. Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey has assembled the best team he possibly could to contend with Golden State, something that sounded impossible when Kevin Durant inked a contract to live in The Bay. In any other era, this Rockets team is a championship favorite nine times out of 10; they have everything they could need to get them there. But bad timing is going to have ever-lasting effects on Hall-of-Fame players who could never get over the hump and win the NBA Finals because there was a juggernaut in their path that couldn’t be budged.
The Warriors could have ruined the playing field for everyone else, essentially monopolizing top talent and creating a basketball environment that everyone wants a chance to play in. The addition of Kevin Durant could have made the regular season feel worthless and unnecessary. But the Rockets (and Raptors and Cavaliers and Celtics and half of the Western Conference) have done everything within their control to keep Golden State stays on its toes. Even with Paul, Houston wasn’t supposed to be this good. The Warriors were supposed to skip through the playoffs for the next four or five years without missing a beat. Now, there are a few unplanned obstacles in the way that might trip them up a few times.
The rest of the NBA is playing to beat Golden State. From Houston to Utah to Dallas, every team has one goal of forming a team that can contend with Golden State (Or at least hoping their rebuild will peak during the Warriors decline, whenever that might happen). Six months ago, a legitimate conversation about any team stealing one game from the Warriors in the playoffs seemed asinine. One month away from the playoffs and we’re wondering just how many games the Rockets are going to win.