By Mike Corasaniti
James Harden was one of the few players standing in the way of Steph Curry and this season's Most Valuable Player award. Now him and his Houston Rockets are the last thing standing in the way of Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors from making their first NBA Finals appearance since the 1975 season.
The Rockets are the second-seeded team in the Western Conference after an impressive regular season that saw Harden come into even more of his own as one of the league's true superstars. Yet the Rockets are now certainly feeling lucky to have even made it this far in the playoffs after getting nearly eliminated by the Clippers in dominant fashion in the previous round.
Forced to overcome a 3-1 deficit at the hands of the Clippers, Houston now has to quickly refocus its efforts from coming back to jumping out to as good of a start as it can. But the Warriors, who swept the four meetings between the two teams in the regular season, are certainly not the team the Rockets were hoping to see.
Will the Warriors continue to rock chalk and move on handily to their first NBA Finals in 40 years? Or will the Rockets and their equally potent sharpshooting ways make things difficult for the reigning MVP?
A Word on the Warriors
With an impressive 67 regular season wins under their belt, Golden State have cruised into the conference finals. After handily sweeping away New Orleans in the first round, the Warriors beat the Grizzlies by more than 15 points on average in the last three games of the conference semifinals after surprisingly falling behind 2-1. Now only one more test awaits Golden State before it can play for a title.
After such an impressive regular season and start to the playoffs, it is indeed Golden State's series to lose. But that doesn't mean it's a lock in any sense. Stephen Curry will undoubtedly continue to be excellent as the best player on the best team in league. But the Warriors and their hopes for Western dominance will rest on the team's role players; namely Curry's No. 2 man Klay Thompson.
Thompson has averaged more than 20 points this postseason, but as evidenced in Golden State's two losses to Memphis in the previous round, Thompson's struggles translate pretty directly to team struggles. Conversely though, the Warriors are near unstoppable once Thompson gets into a groove. The shootouts between Curry and Harden have the potential to be historic, but defensive matchups between Harden and Thompson just might be a critical factor in the series.
Though it's Golden State's series to lose, the Rockets are coming into their first conference finals appearance in years with more momentum than any other team in the league after coming back from the brink against the Clippers in the previous round. Clutch City is feeling better than ever to face the Warriors in the conference finals, which is a good thing considering that they haven't fared well against Golden State all season.
In the end though, any chances the Rockets have at pulling off the upset rest upon the shoulders of Dwight Howard. The center was dominant in the last three games of the series against Los Angeles, putting up at least 16 points and at least 15 rebounds on all three occasions. If Dwight can now take the next step forward and and continue to put in strong efforts on defense, forcing Golden State's shooters to throw up more shots than they're maybe comfortable taking, then Houston may have a chance to give the Warriors some trouble.
Will shutdown defense or efficient offense be the deciding factor in this year's postseason? It's still too early to tell, but Golden State has been the best team in the league this season on both ends of the floor. And Houston will need a lot more than the Clutch factor to overcome that this time around. Warriors in six.