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  • After Wednesday night's thrilling Golden State-Houston bout, anything short of Rockets-Warriors II in this year's Western Conference finals would be a disappointment.
By Michael Shapiro
March 14, 2019

For all the debate surrounding the second-best team in the West, it would frankly be a bit unfair if we didn’t see the Warriors and Rockets meet in the Western Conference finals. Denver is the likely No. 2 seed, and Oklahoma City has a pair of MVP candidates. But as we look forward to May, Houston has emerged as the clear threat to Golden State’s throne. The Rockets entered Wednesday night 3–0 against the Warriors in 2018-19. They will end the regular season 3–1 after losing 106–104 at the Toyota Center.

Golden State came to Houston on Wednesday following four losses in its last six contests. The Warriors got blown out by Boston at home on March 5, then lost to the Suns at Oracle Arena five days later. A combination of fatigue, indifference and injury made Steph Curry and Co. slightly vulnerable, providing a minor crack in their championship armor.

Yet even without Kevin Durant, the Warriors still operate as an NBA version of whack-a-mole, springing one offensive weapon right when another goes down. DeMarcus Cousins turned in perhaps his finest game with Golden State, ending Wednesday evening with 27 points and eight rebounds on 11-16 from the field. Boogie added seven assists in the victory, plowing downhill past the foul line a la peak Draymond Green. Cousins skated past Kenneth Faried and duped Clint Capela down low. The Splash Brothers combined for 54 points and eight threes, led by 30 points from Klay Thompson. Even with a diminished Green, Golden State’s wealth of options is unparalleled.

There was a touch of concern regarding Thompson in the 2018 portion of the season. Thompson shot just 34.4% from three on just 2.5 triples per game in his first 38 contests, far below his career averages in both categories. The Washington State product has since rebounded in a big way. Thompson is canning an outrageous 47.4% of threes since Feb. 1, making 4.2 threes per game. He made his 200th three of the season on Wednesday, completing the feat for the seventh-straight year. Thompson hasn’t scored 50 points in a game since October. The rest of the league should be on watch for another explosion before the season’s over.

Add in a healthy Durant, and the Warriors are still a significant favorite to win the West and a third-straight Finals. Golden State’s victory on Wednesday is a sobering reminder of our likely reality in June, a three-peat almost-guaranteed, perhaps in dominating fashion. Yet it remains hard to dismiss Houston from the Finals conversation. The two teams are 9–9 since Durant left Oklahoma City, and last year’s seven-game Western Conference finals was a true classic. Houston won Game 5 in Houston to go up 3–2, and a healthy Chris Paul very well could have dethroned Golden State. The Rockets held halftime leads in Game 6 and Game 7. Houston suffered a historic cold streak as its Finals dreams slipped away in the deciding game. Sometimes it really is a make-or-miss league.

Paul will likely be the difference between a dogfight and a Dubs coronation. He was arguably the best player on the floor in last year’s West finals, leading the way with 27 points in Game 4. His injury may go down as one of the league’s greatest what-ifs, especially if the Paul-Harden combo never wins the title. Paul has largely returned to form after a rash of early-season injuries, though his lift is diminished. Peak CP3 can give Curry fits and swing a series. Can that player fully return before June?

Those eyeing a dose of parody will advocate for a new challenger for Golden State in the West. A battle with Oklahoma City would provide plenty of Durant-Westbrook drama, plus a chance at redemption for Playoff P. It’s hard to argue against wanting more Nikola Jokic. The box scores in Denver could look straight out of the Alex English era.

But anything short of Rockets-Warriors II would be a disappointment. Denver stands little chance of holding the Warriors in check. A sweep is more likely than seven games. Perhaps Oklahoma City could replicate its 2016 magic, though Westbrook’s shoddy shot selection and a stagnant half-court offense spells a five- or six-game exit.

The Rockets now stand as the lone worthy threat despite their early-season struggles. They boast a Hall of Fame point guard and a potential back-to-back MVP. It may not be enough to topple the Warriors’ dynasty, but Houston is the leading heir to the West throne. We should hope for a rematch in two months.

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