The Houston Rockets are “out here swaggin’ and hoopin’ ” — a phrase used by James Harden to describe how they are approaching this season with a brash brand of basketball overflowing with fun and cockiness. They are close to unbeatable when at full strength. They can’t be ignored, as Harden collects crossover victims on an almost nightly basis. And they can’t be easily dismissed because the team has a respectable defense in its bag to complement an explosive offense.
But the Golden State Warriors can’t obsess over the fact that the Rockets haven’t lost in more than a month. They can’t be consumed by every replay of Wes Johnson falling and imagining all of the memes coming his way, or Carmelo Anthony cursing out his teammates for failing to provide help on defense. Those moments are entertaining to them, as well, but can’t provide any motivation for a team seeking to repeat as NBA champion. As far as the Warriors are concerned, they can’t focus on the Rockets until — or if — they make what appears to be an inevitable meeting in the Western Conference finals.
“I don’t worry about what Houston is doing,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told Yahoo Sports. “They’re having a tremendous season. They’re playing great. They’re going to do what they’re going to do. We’re going to do what we’re going to do. And whatever happens, happens.”
Any other season, in the absence of a team with four All-Stars in their primes that has made three consecutive finals appearances, the Houston Rockets would be the prohibitive favorite to win the championship. Even if wind up becoming only a distraction from the continuation of a potential dynasty, the Rockets have already served a purpose: They have rescued the regular season from boredom and at least provided a little suspense in what was supposed to be a Warriors victory lap.
The Rockets happen to be coming along at a time when the Warriors care more about what happens in June than in March. But that doesn’t make what they are accomplishing — especially during a 17-game winning streak in which 12 of those victories have come against teams competing for playoff spots — any less spectacular. Of the seven double-digit win streaks this season, the Rockets are responsible for two of them, having also run off a string of 14 consecutive victories. They won the regular-season series against Golden State and have no reason to be deferential to the champs with the favorite to win the MVP in Harden and a player who was a part of the last Western Conference team to win a playoff series against the Warriors in Chris Paul. They are an unconscionable 34-1 when Harden, Paul and Clint Capela play together.
“We respect the hell out of them. We respect all those guys and we know — you hear a lot from their GM [Daryl Morey] — but James, and CP and Trevor Ariza, those guys knuckle down and play. They leave the talking up to the GM and whoever else,” Kevin Durant told Yahoo Sports.
Houston has filled a void previously occupied by the Cleveland Cavaliers or the San Antonio Spurs as the team that could most likely become a postseason foil. And, at a time when the Warriors are no longer looking to respond to every perceived slight or approaching every game with pedal-to-floor urgency, the Rockets find themselves positioned to finish as the squad with the league’s best record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Warriors led wire-to-wire during the regular season of their historic 73-win season two years ago, never trailed after November during their run to a championship the previous season and were tied with the Spurs for a day last March before finishing with the top overall seed. But in the fourth year of this historic run, Golden State is mostly motivated by preservation and preparation for another postseason grind. Kerr won’t have a problem resting his stars later in the season. The top seed is important but not at the expense of having a team too tired or banged up to complete its ultimate task.
“We had no interest in winning 74 games last year. And I came into this year fully expecting to be where we are right now, which is off of our pace from the last couple of years,” Kerr told Yahoo Sports. “I didn’t think it was realistic to keep winning 67. I mean, it’s just crazy. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of energy. I like where we are. We’re on pace for 62, 63 or wherever we are. You can’t account for what anyone else is doing.
“The good thing is with a championship team like ours, is you know you can win on the road in the playoffs,” Kerr continued, citing the Warriors’ 7-1 record last postseason. “We’re pretty confident we can win anywhere.”
The Warriors are on pace to win 64 games this season — which would extend an unprecedented run of regular-season dominance — but would gain next to nothing other than a cute historical footnote if they charge toward a fourth consecutive season of at least 67 wins. They’re already the only team to reach that win total three seasons in a row. Even Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls followed up a 141-win stretch from 1995-97 — the best back-to-back win total in NBA history — with just 62 wins in 1997-98.
“Every year is a different journey and a different struggle that you’ve got to get through. Last year, it was a new transition and KD’s injury that kind of sparked us,” Stephen Curry told Yahoo Sports. “This year, our record’s been great and we’re battling the human nature of being in the fight but looking ahead to June. We can’t do that. But that’s what’s keeping us on edge this season. We appreciate every situation that you go through as you chase championships, because it’s a lot.”
Klay Thompson suggested last week that the Warriors should attempt to run the table for the rest of the season, a streak that would reach 24 games — or match the total from the start of their record-breaking season of two years ago. The Warriors’ longest winning streak this season is just 11 games. But as an example of the Rockets’ dominance this season, Golden State would still need Houston to lose two of its final 17 games to win the top seed in the West. The lessons of that 73-win season still resonate.
“It was stressful on the brain. It was mentally draining, going through that. It can take away from you. And the ultimate goal didn’t get finished, but it was still an accomplishment,” Andre Iguodala told Yahoo Sports. “I think you’ve got to compete every night. That’s the respect and the reverence to the game. You want to win every game you go out there. I would never shy away from that. Just being smart about the meaning of a win. Not just winning to win for a record, but winning to play the best you can play to peak come June.”
An often overlooked aspect of the season in which they hunted down one of Michael Jordan’s most sacred records is that the Warriors had another reason to become the second team to win at least 70 games — necessity. The Spurs sent Tim Duncan out with the most regular-season wins of his career and trailed the Warriors by just four games when they met at Oracle Arena in the final week of the season.
The Warriors and Spurs appeared to be on a collision course all season but never met because Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder got their act together, ended Duncan’s career in the second round and engaged in a league-altering seven-game series with Golden State. The prior season, Houston ruined what was supposed to be a conference finals meeting between the Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers, rallying from a 3-1 deficit to thwart Paul.
“I feel that every team is pushing us,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “Obviously, Houston is one of the top teams in the league, but we don’t play them anymore, so we’ve got to focus on us every single day. We know who’s the top teams in the league and who’s playing well at the moment. We can’t look down the line. Who knows if we even play Houston? Anything can happen.”
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