When the 2015 Western Conference finals were over, James Harden could barely make the trudge down the hallway to the interview room and it was all he could do to sit upright behind the microphone. Just a short time earlier, Harden had the ball in his hands and tried one last desperate lunge toward the basket. Instead, he ended up instead practically grinding himself into the Oracle Arena court for his 12th turnover of the game, spent and eliminated in every way.
A year later, with another playoff chance against the Warriors on the line (this time in the first round), Harden poured in 35 points trying to hold off summer. But the Rockets took a 33-point beating from a Golden State Warriors team that didn’t even have it’s two-time Kia MVP, Stephen Curry, in the lineup. Harden finished the last five minutes of the season on the bench with a towel over his head, wondering about the way forward.
Now he’s found the path.
“A team,” Harden said. “Everybody committed. Everybody on the same page. But more than anything, just having fun, man.”
Which makes the Rockets entertaining, engaging and quite dangerous. Even to the Warriors, whom Houston hosts tonight (8 ET, ESPN).
You can see it in the way they bounce up and down the court on virtually every possession, so full of themselves and quite full of confidence. Against anyone.
Even the team that won the NBA championship in 2015, set a record with with 73 regular-season wins in 2015-16 and currently has the best record in the league.
Especially that team.
If LeBron James insists that Cleveland and Golden State, who have met in The Finalsthe past two years, are not rivals, how do the Rockets -- who have lost 13 of 15 to the Warriors over the past two seasons -- fit into the equation?
“Don’t think about it,” said Pat Beverley. “We fear nobody. We don’t have to. We’re as good as anybody.”
They are the surprising owners of the third-best record in the league (33-12) in spite of the fact that the roster was overhauled and coach Mike D’Antoni came in and changed the culture on the fly. Actually, they're doing all of this because of it.
The Rockets are the story of the first half of the season because they never doubt themselves nor look back. So what if they lose back-to-back games last week for the first time all season because the 3-pointers won’t fall? They come out the next game and just keep firing away until the net nearly gets worn out.
They are the Warriors’ bombs-away offense on jet fuel, setting and resetting records for 3s attempted and made constantly. They spread the floor so efficiently with new snipers Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson that it opens up pathways to the rim. They are the veterans Harden and Beverley and Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer rediscovering their collective spark. They are the young legs of Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker and Clint Capela, always ready to jump through the roof.
The Warriors and the never-ending story of the San Antonio Spurs are still considered a cut above the rest in the Western Conference, but can feel the hot, humid breath out of Houston on their necks.
These Rockets, in fact, could be potentially lethal in the playoffs because they don’t know what they don’t know and all the things they’re not supposed to do. That was true in the first Warriors-Rockets game this season on Dec. 1. That night, the Rockets went into Oracle, never backed off or down and, eventually, backed out of the building with a double-overtime win that might have said things changed.
Maybe they have. While the Warriors’ 36-6 mark is still the one everybody is chasing this season, their situation is now entirely different. It’s not just the embarrassment-of-riches addition of Kevin Durant, but the burden that comes from being the pacesetters in the crosshairs year after year. It takes a toll to keep grinding through every opponent’s best shot every night and keep an edge that has to be honed all the way through June. Theirs is a high bar that is constantly getting raised.
What has changed for the Rockets is they don’t even see the bar ... because they’re too busy just having fun, man.
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