Everyone seems to be writing the Warriors off, but never underestimate Stephen Curry.
From the moment Kevin Durant let the world know he was signing with the Golden State Warriors after the 2016 season, basketball fans everywhere knew that they were in for a long, sad ride.
Durant’s addition to an already historically good team told us that the Warriors would most likely easily be taking two or three consecutive championships.
Last year all but confirmed that sentiment, as Golden State swept through the west and then dispatched Cleveland in five games despite LeBron James’s superhuman efforts.
As the most recent season kicked off, the Warriors continued on their merry way, coasting easily through games and then eviscerating opponents come playoff time.
Other west contenders that people hoped might unseat the reigning champions crashed and burned one by one. DeMarcus Cousins went down with an injury. The Carmelo Anthony experiment was a disaster. Kawhi Leonard seemingly vanished from the face of the earth.
Meanwhile, the east is just so much weaker than the west. The 76ers proved to be too inexperienced. The Raptors were phonies. The Celtics are dealing with a myriad of injuries. The Cavaliers just don’t have the support pieces in place to be an elite team.
So if the Warriors make it to the NBA finals again, consider it a done deal – whoever comes out of the east is getting swept straight into the off-season.
There is only one more obstacle in their way: the Houston Rockets. Daryl Morey’s team went for it all this off-season, pouncing to add superstar point guard Chris Paul to their already formidable squad. The goal was to finally give MVP candidate James Harden some help, and it paid off with a surprising 65-17 record that nabbed them the first seed over Golden State.
They have flourished under Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced and three-point-heavy system, producing one of the best offensive seasons in league history while still sporting a top-ten defence.
It didn’t take too many regular season games for fans to realise that a Golden State versus Houston match-up was nearly a lock to take place in the western conference finals, but now the time is finally here and we get to see if the Warriors can be cracked.
We already know what Golden State can do. They’ve got their four all-stars, a great coach and role players that always seem to step up in big moments.
Houston, on the other hand, still has some question marks. In theory they have players who can really match up well and cause problems for the Warriors, such as Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute and Clint Capela.
Add PJ Tucker and Eric Gordon to that mix and you have a host of players who play with high energy and have the strength to turn this into a physical series. It just remains to be seen whether this can translate from paper onto the court.
Forget their regular season match-ups – playoff basketball is completely different. The Warriors have flipped a switch, silencing the doubters who questioned their at times disengaged and lacklustre play over the first 82 games.
While innumerable things will decide the series, here are just a few major factors to watch for.
First, just how healthy is Steph Curry? He returned from injury against the Pelicans, and while he looked good, he’s probably at 85 per cent or so of his full health. Against Cleveland in 2016 a slightly injured Curry struggled to take defenders off the dribble enough times to make the difference in that series – think of him being unable to shake Kevin Love in the closing moments of Game 7.
If he isn’t at his best, even if he’s just a step slower, some of these already excellent defensive players on the Rockets are going to stick tighter on him, whether it’s coming off screens or off the dribble.
Second, will the Rockets be able to make Durant’s life difficult? We saw him get whatever he wanted against the Pelicans, as all their defenders were either too short or too slow to force him to alter his shots.
The Rockets have more capable bodies than any other team in the league to throw at Durant. Ariza should be the primary defender on him, with both the length and the discipline to cause some problems. Mbah a Moute is also an excellent defender but has struggled offensively since coming back from injury. He needs to hit his shots to justify being on the floor for extended periods of time.
PJ Tucker is a bit undersized but is one of the stronger players in the league and might be able to bully Durant off some of his preferred spots on the floor.
Next, it remains to be seen whether Harden and Paul can live up to the playoff pressure. Both have a bit of a deserved reputation for failing to get their teams over the hump in the postseason’s biggest moments. However, much of those struggles have seemed to be the result of fatigue, as they were both the only truly capable ballhandlers on their respective teams before this season.
Now with staggered minutes and a reduced load, both have been performing at their best. At least one of the pair needs to have a big night in every game for the Rockets to stay competitive.
Finally, Capela is going to be the x-factor in this series. The center has been an absolute nightmare for everyone he’s faced this season, with relentless hustle and the ability to seemingly be everywhere on the floor on both sides of the ball.
He protects the paint, switches on defence, runs the floor with pace and apparently knows the exact perfect moment to roll to the basket every time. He’s getting a max contract this off-season, but it remains to be seen if he can perform against the best team in basketball for a full series.
In the end, the series seems like it could go in any direction. If the Rockets are hitting their three-pointers, their offence reaches a level that even the Warriors might not be able to match. If Durant, Curry and Klay Thompson get loose, they will bury Houston.
I expect a couple blowouts and a couple close ones, but in the end I think the Warriors take it in six games. That being said, it wouldn’t surprise me to see any result that isn’t a Rockets sweep. There’s just so much swing potential in every match-up.
Will Harden be able to hit those vaunted stepbacks? Is Curry going to take players off the dribble reliably? Will Houston be able to execute their switches flawlessly? Can Golden State avoid fouling and turning the ball over, as they are prone to do?
The Rockets do have a real chance to shift the NBA landscape. Taking homecourt could end up being a huge boon for them.
No matter the result, the winner should be able to start celebrating a title early, as whoever limps out of the east will pale in comparison. These western finals should be one for the ages – either cementing the Warriors dynasty as truly one of the greatest of all time or being known as the series that proved the brilliance of Moreyball.