At time of writing, the Houston Rockets occupy the number one seed in the Western Conference in front of the reigning champions Golden State Warriors.
This Golden State team is often considered as one of the greatest teams the NBA has ever seen, a mixture of electrifying offense and stellar defence has seen Coach Kerr’s squad reach the last three NBA finals and they are heavily fancied to do so again this year.
Standing in their way is James Harden, Chris Paul and the high powered offence of the Houston Rockets. The Houston Rockets are currently the closest team to the Warriors in the eyes of many, although both the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers will expect to have some say in where the Larry O’Brien Trophy ends up this summer.
Numerous factors have lead to the rebirth of the Rockets franchise over the last two years, most notably the acquisitions of both coach Mike D’Antoni and future Hall of Famer Chris Paul this off-season from the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers respectively. Other factors which have lead to this improvement have been the emergence of key role players, intelligent free agency signings and a generally better team chemistry.
The Houston Rockets have been ever-present in the Western Conference playoff race ever since trading for perennial all-star James Harden, a trade which many regard now as the most lopsided in NBA history.
Harden has continuously grown as a leader for this franchise every year but a lack of defence and an in-ability to fulfil his duties as an MVP calibre player in the playoffs have often seen his credentials questioned. This year, the Arizona State Alum has the best surrounding cast since he came off the bench in Oklahoma City and will feel confident of beating the Warriors.
It is obviously not all negative with The Beard currently averaging a league best 30.9 PPG on a cool 44.8 field goal percentage means that Harden will require Golden State’s premier perimeter defenders such as Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala to be at their brilliant best in order to stop the 6 foot 5 guard.
The acquisition of Chris Paul this previous off-season for the Rockets has made the offensive load that much easier a burden for Harden to bear.
Chris Paul is like a fine wine, and although he may never return to the level he showed in his time with the New Orleans Hornets – now the Pelicans – he has seen a resurgence since being traded for seven players including Lou Williams, Sam Dekker and Patrick Beverley.
Paul’s ability to defend at an above average level will be crucial when tasked with guarding two time MVP winner Steph Curry. Although ‘Pat Bev’ was a slightly defender then Chris Paul, the difference on the offensive side is immeasurable. The Wake Forest graduate is still the best operator of the pick and roll offense that the league has even seen. One could also argue that this is the first time Chris has had a true superstar in his prime to play with due to the inconsistency in the past of both Blake Griffin and David West to stay healthy.
The Rockets have been revitalized as a franchise ever since the appointment of current head coach Mike D’Antoni at the beginning of the 2016/17 season, with the team transitioning to an up-tempo “seven seconds or less” style of basketball that D’Antoni used when in charge of Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns. This has benefited a lot of the Rockets key role players with Clint Capela, Gerald Green and PJ Tucker all playing the best basketball of their careers this season.
This Warriors team is nothing to forget about at the same time. Two former MVP winners and a current defensive player of the year make up the reigning champions, lest we forget.
Steph Curry’s seemingly limitless range as well as Kevin Durant being the most versatile scorer that the league has seen since Larry Bird mean that Trevor Ariza and PJ Tucker will need to be at peak level for these matchups which should prove difficult.
Also, if the Rockets prevail and make it to the Western Conference finals the majority of their players are close to or over 30 and could fade away should this series go to six or seven games.
The question as to whether or not the Rockets can beat Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors is still a pressing one. Although the Rockets have improved dramatically as a unit defensively, they still give large minutes to two below average defenders in Harden and power forward Ryan Anderson.
Steve Kerr’s men thrive on attacking a team’s weakness and can be expected to attack Anderson in the pick and roll as much as possible which will mean Clint Capela’s ability to protect the rim be tested to its maximum.
Despite the fact I think that the Houston Rockets are more than capable of shocking the Golden State Warriors and certainly have the talent to do so. The men from Oakland are still probably on track to become the best collective unit the league has ever seen and will be as hungry as ever to bring a third championship in four years back to ‘the Bay’.
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