When MVP Stephen Curry and runner-up James Harden go head-to-head in the Western Conference finals, they will be leading the West's top two seeds and the NBA's two fastest teams. Golden State led the NBA in pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes) this season at 98.3, while Houston finished No. 2 at 96.5, according to basketball-reference.com.
This type of showdown between hares doesn't come along very often, in large part because pure speed is no guarantee of success. The last time the two fastest teams faced each other in the playoffs was 1984-85, when the Nuggets (No. 1) eliminated the Jazz (No. 2) in five game in the Western Conference semifinals. Of course, the fast-and-loose 1980s represented a different era for the NBA, and the eye-popping average score in that series was Denver 125, Utah 118.
The NBA has seen a number of different stylistic changes since then: things slowed down in the late-1990s and early-2000s before the "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns led a speed revival in the mid-2000s. Stereotypes against teams that play ultra-fast persist in large part because the list of recent NBA champions doesn't include many speed demons: The only title team to play at a top-five pace during the last 30 years was the 2009 Lakers, who were tied for fifth. Teams that play at a below-average pace have won 23 of the last 35 titles during the three-point era, and the NBA's fastest team has never won the championship during the three-point era. As such, both the Warriors and Rockets would easily stand as the fastest NBA champion since 2000.
As this season's heavy title favorite, Golden State is in excellent position to eradicate the conventional wisdom that winning big and playing ultra-fast are mutually exclusive. Guided by former Suns executive Steve Kerr and former Suns coach Alvin Gentry, the Warriors have made speed a top priority. Curry has been granted the greenest of green lights, Golden State led the league in points off turnovers, and Kerr managed to maintain an elite defense despite the frenetic, up-tempo approach.
Still, the Warriors' push for the title has slowed down considerably in the postseason. Matchups against New Orleans and Memphis, two of the five slowest teams during the regular season, has left Golden State ranking No. 14 out of the 16 playoff teams in pace.
Re-acceleration is inevitable. The Rockets have led the playoffs in pace during high-octane series against the Mavericks and the Clippers. Both Golden State and Houston are viewed as modern, forward-thinking outfits, and both are fully invested in pushing the tempo in search of open three-pointers, high-percentage looks at the hoop and trips to the foul line. The combined pace of these two teams is the fastest in a playoff series since the 2008 Lakers (95.6 pace) swept the Nuggets (99.7) in the first round.
The average score of Golden State's four regular season victories against Houston was 115 to 100, and the Warriors managed to pile up 131 points and 126 points, respectively, against the Rockets in two January wins. For a team that was held below 102 points in five of six second-round games against the rough-and-tumble Grizzlies, getting back to playing the preferred up-and-down style sounds awfully intoxicating.
"[Fast is] our brand of basketball and we feel like we're really good at our brand of basketball," Draymond Green told reporters Monday. "Coming off of a series against Memphis, coach Kerr made the analogy [that] it's a, 'You're out of jail' type feeling. You can really get back to your brand of basketball."
The Warriors never need an excuse to push the pace, but they have drawn added motivation from the Rockets' remarkable comeback in the West semifinals against the Clippers. Trailing 3-1 in the series, Houston improbably won three straight games, including a Game 6 comeback that saw the Rockets dig out of a 19-point second-half deficit to win by double digits.
"It's a good lesson for us to keep our foot on the gas pedal," Curry said. "You can't let up."
In other words, fasten your seatbelt.