As the first round of the NBA playoffs continues, it is becoming clear that the Golden State Warriors will face the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Semifinals. The Warriors can easily demolish the Clippers one more time, and the Rockets have severely outmatched the Jazz over the first three games of their series. As a result, more and more chatter has arisen in the sports world that the Rockets have a chance of taking down the Warriors. While the thought may seem ludicrous at first glance, don’t disregard it immediately. If any team can beat Golden State, it’s Houston.
First of all, it took seven games and a Chris Paul injury for the Warriors to escape the Rockets last year. True, Andre Iguodala missed time in the series with an injury of his own, but if anything, the talent gap between the two teams has only narrowed. Golden State hoped DeMarcus Cousins would put to rest any hope for Houston and other challengers, but with Cousins out for a while (probably the rest of the season) with a quad injury, the Warriors are now left without their biggest addition, forcing them to bring back a rotation similar to last year’s. David West and JaVale McGee are gone though, with an aged Andrew Bogut as a big man replacement. So if anything, Golden State sans Cousins is a slightly worse team than that of the 2017-18 season.
The Rockets, on the other hand, ably adjusted their roster throughout the season after losing Trevor Ariza to free agency. Austin Rivers provides ball-handling and play creation that the Rockets missed so greatly at times. Between him, James Harden, Paul and Eric Gordon, Houston now has four players who can run offense. Kenneth Faried has filled in admirably as a rotation big, and Danuel House has shored up Houston’s wing depth. These Rockets look slightly better than last year’s edition.
Yes, Houston is only a fourth seed when the team was the top seed in 2017-18. But they got off to a slow start that set them back and only fell to their current position because of some fluky late regular season results. The roster as presently constructed is just as capable of giving Golden State trouble.
Not to mention that Houston’s most talented players have improved as well. Harden has taken his game to an even higher level, armed with a devastating stepback three-pointer and a newly refined floater. He averaged 36.1 points per game this past regular season — well above his mark of 30.4 from last year — thereby displaying increased stamina, which has always been a problem for him in the playoffs. Harden has grown accustomed to scoring throughout an entire game and won’t wear down as easily in crunch time as he has done previously. In Game 3 of the first round against the Jazz, for example, Harden struggled to score for most of the game, shooting 3/19 from the field. Yet, he still recovered to score 14 points in the fourth quarter. That would never have happened in past seasons. Clint Capela, meanwhile, averaged 16.6 points and 12.7 rebounds per regular season game, both career-high numbers by a wide margin which solidify him as one of the best rebounders in the league. The Warriors won’t be able to put Cousins on him (which worked well in the regular season) and will have to hope that Kevon Looney and Bogut are up to the task. I wouldn’t be so optimistic about that.
Golden State, by comparison, has remained stagnant. Obviously Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are incredible and are two of the top three players in the entire league, but we haven’t seen any Harden-esque performance leaps from them. Durant especially has looked disconnected from the rest of the offense at times, memorably arguing with Draymond Green earlier in the season. If Houston can put the pressure on Golden State, Durant’s reaction will prove vital for the Warriors’ chances. It appears that he has one foot out of the door already, perhaps headed to the Knicks as a free agent this summer. Will Durant buckle down and play at his best when it’s most difficult for a team he’s probably leaving?
Chris Paul’s health remains the most important factor in this series. Houston was on the brink of victory with a 3-2 series lead before Paul went down in Game 5 of last year’s Western Conference Finals. But the point guard continues to be fragile — he missed plenty of time in the earlier stages of the season, one of the main reasons why the Rockets struggled out of the starting gate. When the minutes and intensity ramp up, will Paul be able to stay healthy and not have his body collapse due to playoff exertion?
Regardless, Golden State will and should enter the series as favorites. They’ve won two consecutive titles in largely dominating fashion, and between Curry, Durant, Klay Thompson and Green, still boast a dynamic starting lineup. But signs of slippage are there. And Houston came so close just last year. In the end, this series seems destined for six or seven games. If Paul stays healthy, Harden keeps up his historic pace and the Warriors continue to play at their current level, a Houston series victory is far from unthinkable.
George Klein ’20 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.