OAKLAND, California: From coach Mike D’Antoni to his stars James Harden and Chris Paul and all the rest of the Rockets, another chance at the champion Golden State Warriors has been on their mind for months.
Golden State and Houston will face off in the playoffs for the fourth time in five years — two of those previous matchups in the Western Conference finals won by the Warriors on the way to championships, in 2015 and last season.
“We haven’t come up on the winning side yet. It’s another opportunity for us to change that. We know how difficult it’s going to be,” Harden said Saturday. .”.. I think everyone wants a shot at the Warriors.”
Warriors Splash Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were listed as questionable for Sunday’s series opener after each sprained his right ankle Friday night against the Clippers.
Thompson might have spoken up about the Rockets rematch a little too soon. Top-seeded Golden State had yet to eliminate Los Angeles in the first round, then the Warriors failed to close it out at home in Game 5 before winning Game 6 on the road Friday.
Yet Thompson knows this is what everybody wants to talk about — and how could you not?
Next up is a potentially epic Western Conference semifinal between the two-time defending champs and their Texas nemesis.
Bring on Harden and Paul once more. With these two leading the way, the Rockets are largely considered the ones with the best shot to derail Golden State’s road to a three-peat.
Game 1 is Sunday at Oracle Arena.
“They’re going to be around. You’re going to have to go through them some way, whether it’s in the second round, third round,” D’Antoni said.
The Warriors have home-court advantage this time, while last year Houston grabbed the West’s No. 1 seed.
Golden State rallied from a 3-2 deficit to beat the Rockets on the road in Game 7. The Warriors eliminated the Rockets in a five-game first-round series during their 2016 runner-up run, and in five games for the Western Conference crown in ‘15 on the way to the franchise’s first championship in 40 years.
“They’re a great team. They’ve got two Hall of Fame guards in the backcourt and everyone else has carved out a nice roll,” Thompson said. “We’ve had a ton of history with them the last five years in the playoffs and I know they’re just itching to get another shot at us, and when two teams meet like that when the stakes are that high it makes for the best basketball in the world.”
Last year, the Rockets played the final two games without Paul after he injured his right hamstring in Game 5. It was a huge blow.
Paul posted April 13 on his Twitter a video of his extensive rehab work and a message — “This is what we’ve been waiting for. #UnfinishedBusiness.”
He wouldn’t call last year’s injury the lowest point in his career but among the most devastating moments for sure.
“If that’s the lowest low for me then I’m living a good life,” Paul said. “It’s something that I don’t probably think about as much as others do. If you just sit around and think about that all day every day how do you ever get past it?“
He added: “You just get back up on the horse and get back to business. We’re here now.”
Here are some things to watch for in what should be a sensational series:
Being on top
The Warriors are fully aware of how hard it is to win year after year when every team wants what you have.
There have been plenty of embarrassing losses along the way this season, including two at home in the first round and one in which Golden State blew a 31-point lead.
“You think about what these guys are doing night after night after night, taking everybody’s best shot, playing deep into June — it’s actually surprising that we haven’t had more of those nights over those years,” coach Steve Kerr said. “What you have seen the last couple of years, the last two seasons, is that we have had some letdowns and some nights like that. It’s hard for anybody to understand what these guys go through physically, emotionally and spiritually just trying to defend the crown, trying to win the title and stay on top of the mountain.”
The Rockets surely won’t forget how they finished last year’s series: 27 straight missed 3-pointers that did them in down the stretch in Game 7.
Houston missed all 14 3-point attempts in the third quarter and went 1-for-21 from deep in the second half.
“If you can’t score with these guys, you’ve got no chance,” Harden said.
Curry on D
Curry knows he must be disciplined on defense, and insists that often comes down to focus. When the Warriors get stops it allows them to push the pace in transition and have a chance to pile up points in a hurry.
“I have confidence in my hand-eye coordination and hand speed and stuff like that,” Curry said. “That’s how I get steals usually, is being quick. But that’s how I get fouls, too, so I’ve got to balance both of them.”
The Rockets closed out the Jazz 100-93 in five games Wednesday night so they should be well-rested, while the Warriors had a short turnaround after needing an extra game in the first round.
Kerr calls it “a big deal” to get even short breaks during the postseason grind.
“Any chance you get during the playoffs for some rest you’ve got to try to get that, because it’s a long haul,” Kerr said. “If you go to the finals, it’s almost two months and I think the more we can have time in between for preparation and rest the better that serves us going forward. And there’s an accumulation, too, a physical one.”
D’Antoni figured the Warriors would end their series sooner but isn’t ready to say it gives his team an edge.
“I don’t know how they feel. They may feel great,” D’Antoni said.
The Warriors have been watching from afar and keeping tabs on Harden and his crew — you bet. Even if there aren’t many surprises “jumping off the TV,” Curry said of scouting.
Houston gets that.
“We shouldn’t be surprised about how good they are,” D’Antoni said.
The Rockets know who they must stop.
Kevin Durant has scored 30 or more points in four straight playoff games, going off for 45 in Game 5 against Los Angeles then 50 in Game 6.
“Kevin Durant is Kevin Durant. He’s probably one of the best scorers that the NBA’s ever seen,” Harden said. “You can’t give a guy like that confidence.”