The Golden State Warriors look uninspired. Maybe it’s boredom, maybe it’s something else, but currently no one outside of the Bay Area is thinking much about the regular-season version of the reigning champs.
Back in reality, or at least one version of it, the Houston Rockets are the toast of the NBA. Currently sitting at 51-14, they’ve had the best record in the league for most of the season. Their offense is shattering records and their defense is among the staunchest in the league. James Harden, the putative MVP, is playing out of his mind. Chris Paul has been seamlessly integrated into Mike D’Antoni’s system. Secondary players like Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, and Trevor Ariza are thriving. They’ve had win streaks of 17 and 14 games and are a preposterous 32-1 when Harden, and Paul, and Capela all play and they are at full-strength. Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni’s “so crazy it just might work” experiment has proven damn successful.
But the Rockets fully understand the screwy logic of the present-day NBA. What began as a theoretical exercise has come into focus as something almost crassly specific: A team designed to beat the Warriors. Morey has described his organization as “obsessed with” beating the Warriors, and it’s easy to see how this thinking has guided their moves over the last year or so. Shooting tons of threes and playing at a breakneck tempo allows them to keep up when Golden State gets going. A wealth of shooters allows Houston to slip through the cracks in the Warriors’ switch-heavy scheme. And Morey has stocked up on long, athletic defenders unlikely to be flummoxed by Golden State’s versatility.
Houston isn’t just clear-eyed about what’s ahead. As the redoubtable Shrill has pointed out, they’re leaning right into it. Not only do they have their sights set on Golden State—they believe they’re definitively going to take them out. And, doubling down, not only is it going to happen—it’s going to happen this season. For the last few months, the Rockets have been telling anyone who would listen that not only can they hang with Golden State, they’re going to beat them on their way to a title. In February, Harden proclaimed that “this is the year.” Capela said “we’re better than them.” And swingman P.J. Tucker described Houston as “the perfect team to beat the Warriors.”
The Rockets have embraced the fact that it’s not enough to believe you’re the best thing going. You have to believe you’re better than a version of the Warriors that hasn’t, and may never, come to fruition. When Harden bounced back from a hamstring injury in time for a January matchup with Golden State, he declared it “important for our swag” that he suit up.
"Against Golden State, a certain level of self-delusion is necessary."
For Houston, it’s an unbelievably bold stance to take. We can debate the efficacy of—and risk involved in—guaranteeing victory. But the Rockets aren’t just calling for a win, they’re guaranteeing one now, at the first evidence that they could credibly pose a threat to the Warriors. While we don’t expect professional athletes to publicly hedge against failure, the Rockets’ attitude is almost reckless. If they come up short of a title, or at least a trip to the Finals, they’ll have fallen short of the expectations they themselves set. They’ve put more pressure on themselves than anyone else was looking to apply to them in the first place.
Maybe, though, this strategy isn’t so crazy after all. After all, the Rockets need a motivator in the face of what are still not odds in their favor and “we can beat the Warriors” just doesn’t pack the same punch as “this is our one shot!” And while some may see this as arrogance, against Golden State, a certain level of self-delusion is necessary. It’s the kind of scrappy, gutsy bravura we love to see when athletes who find themselves sorely tested. Against the Warriors, even LeBron James is an underdog. While the Rockets would never admit it, their attitude is in fact fending off insecurity. If a Warriors title is a foregone conclusion, the only way for the Rockets to hang is if they believe themselves destined to win, hand-picked by the Basketball Gods to buck the accepted order of things. It certainly appears to be working. The Rockets have been playing with a sense of urgency all year, and a make-or-break attitude would certainly explain this. A team refusing to cool down or level out must exist in a heightened state. For whatever it’s worth, they’re so far 2-1 against their arch-rivals. And the conversation around them has shifted, probably in part due to their insistence on framing themselves as worthy opponents to Golden State. No one’s dismissing the Rockets as a novelty, a regular season mirage, or cannon fodder for a Warriors team bound to spring to life in the postseason. Instead, they’re looking at what the Rockets do and wondering how the Warriors stack up against them, too. Houston, for all their “obsessing” over Golden State, have turned themselves into something other than a foil.
There is, however, also a dark side. Harden, Paul, and to a lesser degree D’Antoni all have all come under intense scrutiny in the postseason, and this one will be no different. Whether or not they want that added pressure, all three will be expected to deliver and prove their critics wrong. This would be the case even if the Rockets weren’t the best team in the league; having to substantiate that and back up everyone’s high estimation of them only complicates things further. Harden, in particular, has almost quizzically disappeared at times, and with the MVP headed his way, he’ll be expected to dominate. Because sports work the way they do, Harden, Paul, and D’Antoni aren’t just expected to redeem themselves. They’ve got to outdo themselves to make up for making asses of everyone who believed in them. When those expectations are unavoidable, “this is our year” becomes a grim inevitability, not a matter of free will.
The Warriors are not immune to all the light and noise emanating from Houston. Capela’s comments got under Kevin Durant’s skin. And earlier this month, Draymond Green conceded that the Rockets were “a threat … built to beat us.” This is a little surprising, seeing as the Warriors seem perpetually over this regular season, or too good to bother with it. But given the Rockets’ ongoing hot streak, maybe the Warriors have no choice but to perk up, proof that they view Houston as simply too dangerous to dismiss or look past. This probably isn’t ideal for the Rockets, who would prefer to catch a compromised version of the Warriors, a team that at any given moment can manifest some of the most mind-altering basketball the world has ever seen. For those of us watching, though, anything that awakens Golden State and forces them to stop coasting is a good thing. What makes them galling isn’t just their devastation on the league’s competitive balance. It’s their refusal to ever really see just how great they can be. If Houston brings out the best version of the Warriors—and then has to contend with it—then this rivalry will really come to life.