Houston Rockets continue to assert biggest threat to Golden State Warriors

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

The last time they shared the same air space, the mood was peaceful, pleasant, funny at times. Draymond Green chopped it up in the locker room with James Harden. Harden and Steph Curry playfully re-enacted some of their favorite killer crossover moves. Klay Thompson put an arm around Mike D’Antoni and squeezed.

Good vibes all around. But this was a few weeks ago at the NBA All-Star Game, where selected Warriors and Rockets were on the same bench and page if for only a day. And in those last friendly minutes together, D’Antoni, who coached those four players, was playfully sent a message by Curry, Green and Thompson, who “kept trying to take my clipboard, trying to draw plays up and I had to fight ‘em,” D’Antoni said then.

If the Rockets and Warriors meet again — and their paths in the Western Conference are indeed headed toward a postseason intersection — there will be a fight, in the basketball sense. That’s because they’ve distanced themselves from everyone else while enjoying each other’s close company all season. Too close for comfort, perhaps?

The intrigue in the West, if not the entire NBA, is dominated by two teams who can’t shake one another and maybe never will until late May. There are roughly six weeks remaining in the regular season and this much is pretty clear:

The Warriors are facing their biggest conference threat since creating this dynasty four years ago.

The Rockets need to secure the best record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs more than Golden State.

And if basketball was fair, these teams would meet in the NBA Finals instead of one being left out.

The Rockets, with a pair of 14-game winning streaks, have created the perception of being good enough to beat the Warriors, and the Warriors have looked vulnerable enough to raise this previously-unthinkable possibility just the slightest. Their hand-holding sprint to the regular-season finish and pending collision course at the Western Conference finals is the best drama going in the NBA outside of the Cavaliers. It’ll be curious to see how two teams thriving mainly on 3-point shooting and creating chaos and supported by Kia MVP candidates settle the issue once and for all.

“We’re going to play hard, play for each other and the results are going to show,” Harden said. “You can see how each individual works at his craft, whatever his craft is. We’re putting all those pieces together along with the coaching staff we have.

“We can’t be comfortable and say we have the best record in the league. We still have to prove ourselves. We’re not at a time to relax at all. We know how important this opportunity is. It’s up to us to take advantage of everything coming our way and make the most of it.”

Yes, all the mystery mainly lies with the Rockets and whether they’re for real as a title contender. We know about the Warriors. We’re just now warming up to the Rockets. They’re not bringing the two championships in three years or the track record of performance under pressure as the Warriors. By comparison, the Rockets are untested, unproven, more wishful.

We can’t be comfortable and say we have the best record in the league. We still have to prove ourselves.

Houston Rockets All-Star James Harden

Yet: “I think we have a serious chance,” D’Antoni said.

The Rockets won two out of the three meetings with the Warriors this season; they’re only the fourth team to beat the Warriors twice in a season since Steve Kerr became coach. They own the second-best offense, no surprise, and rated 10th defensively, a surprise.

Of course, there’s also Harden, who’s pole-positioned to win the Kia MVP, arguably the best player in the NBA over the last three years after LeBron James. Harden has elevated himself as a must-see star who leads the NBA in scoring (31.2) and is third in assists (8.9) and has a 60-point triple double this season.

Harden’s impact in D’Antoni’s system can’t be stressed enough, because it doesn’t work unless he works. The ripple effect is ridiculous. His command of the double team makes Houston’s dependence on the 3-pointer understandable, considering Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson all get an enviable share of open looks. How effective would they be if they needed to create the majority of their shots? Perhaps not nearly as much. Their value is inflated by Harden, at least in this system.

Harden’s dribble game and ability to shake defenders and reach the paint also produces layups for him or dunks for Clint Capela (65.5 percent field goal percentage); the defense can pick its poison. Those are the high percentage shots that give Houston another dimension and offensive balance. In all, the Rockets have seven players in double figures scoring and it’s mostly due to Harden and the attention he gets. It’s the true definition of making teammates better.

Does it need to be mentioned that Harden, often a punch line when it comes to defense, is eighth in the league in steals? Perhaps a reputation is being chopped down, at last.

His bond with newcomer Chris Paul has been quick and problem-free, which is refreshing for Houston because of the often-tricky chemistry between ball-dominant stars in the past. Both made sacrifices to make it work by playing off the ball and showing mutual respect. And no starting backcourt in the NBA delivers more assists (17 per game), evidence of their instincts and willingness to share.

It’s a collaborative machine that squeezes the specific talents of everyone who checks into the game.

“Things are obviously going pretty good,” D’Antoni said. “It helps that we’re in a race for the first seed. I think the guys enjoy coming into the locker room and playing. I don’t think we’re in a hurry for the season to get over with. It’s been a great season so far and they’ve enjoyed every day of it. I think the talk is, ‘boy, this is going by really fast.’ So if we can just make this last a little longer, it’ll be great.”

The Rockets are 32-1 with Paul, Harden and Capela on the floor together and overall have played only five games decided by three points or less. If you diminish the five-game losing streak during the holidays (Capela missed four of those games and Paul missed three), where would the Rockets be? Remember, they won 25 of their first 29.

“We’re worried about the Rockets and not anybody else,” said D’Antoni.

The current 15-game win streak, Harden’s MVP candidacy, Paul’s arrival, 18 games with at least 19 made threes and improved defensive play are making the Rockets feel frisky. Two recent comments bear this out: Capella saying “now we know that we can definitely beat them” — meaning the Warriors — on Jan. 20 and Harden’s “this is the year, for sure” declaration a week ago. When’s the last time a team in the West were led by their chin and chest and genuinely felt they stood on equal ground with the Warriors during Golden State’s current dynasty?

In 2014-15, the Rockets finished second in the West but in truth were mismatched against the Warriors; the harmony was prickly between Harden and Dwight Howard. The next season, the Spurs had a franchise-record 67 wins and added LaMarcus Aldridge and saw Kawhi Leonard become a blowout star, but they lost to Oklahoma City in the second round. The Thunder that year were well-equipped to handle the Warriors, and they did through the first four games of the West finals before Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook blew a 3-1 lead.

That series swung in Golden State’s favor in a pair of ways; not only did the Warriors rally, but they also convinced Durant to sign up that summer. With Durant, the Warriors weren’t threatened by anyone in the West last season, especially after the Spurs lost Leonard in the first game of their playoff series.

But now the Rockets are not only back in the mix, they reloaded with Paul and an improved Capela and a better sense of the D’Antoni system. Also, Gordon (18.7 points) is playing the best basketball of his life at age 29 and PJ Tucker was added last summer to bring a German Shepherd’s attitude.

Durant has noticed the difference, saying: “They’re playing harder. And they’re definitely playing defense harder than before.”

D’Antoni knows the Rockets are at a disadvantage in terms of championship wisdom, something that’s noticeably missing from Harden, who reached The Finals with OKC and played poorly in the series, and Paul, who hasn’t advanced beyond the second round. He spoke lately about developing “championship habits” and believes winning will take care of that when and if the Rockets travel deep into the playoffs.

He said: “We do have the talent and the ability to play and beat anybody at any time. We do have a goal in trying to win it. No shame in that. We also know Golden State’s the best team. We still have some growing to do. They’ve won the championship. We’re confident, but at the same time, we know they’ve done it.”

The Rockets are well on pace to post the best regular-season record in franchise history and yet that won’t guarantee it’ll come with best overall record in the West. The Warriors are still running in-step at the moment. April will determine how important it is to the Warriors, who could rest their starters more often than D’Antoni will sit Harden and Paul. Again: Houston seemingly wants home-court more, and maybe needs it more.

“It’s important,” Harden said. “That’s why we’re going to take it one step at a time and be the best that we can be.”

And the Warriors? They’ve adopted the “catch us if you can” attitude and placing a premium on staying healthy, first and foremost. Perhaps fortified by two championships in three years and the knowledge that any warts at the moment can be erased once the postseason begins, they rightly see themselves as the hunted, rather than the hunter, in the West.

Coach Steve Kerr has harped on the Warriors’ occasional defensive lapses and more than a few times this season wondered if the team is still responding to him, which led him to famously hand over the clipboard a week ago to his players during timeouts.

Still, few in the basketball world are buying the idea of the Warriors being unmotivated or diminished. And consider this: Despite all the Houston win streaks, the Warriors are also at the top in the West. How much of a psychological blow would it be to Houston if the Warriors clinch best record?

Nothing’s changed with the Warriors, who still have four All-Stars, a pair of MVP candidates in Curry and Durant, and noted playoff beast Andre Iguodala is slowly awakening from his regular season hibernation.

Curry compared the current Rockets’ confidence to Golden State’s mentality before the titles began rolling in. That’s why he chuckled at all the fuss made over the bravado comments from Capela and Harden and asked, “what else are (they) supposed to say?”

The Warriors don’t discuss the Rockets as much as the Rockets are willing to discuss them. That’s understandable. Yet the time could be fast approaching when the Warriors must concede the obvious and there’s nobody else except Houston standing between them and a fourth trip to The Finals.

Does anyone expect differently?

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.