A strenuous season in the West has come down to a battle between its two top teams. The Golden State Warriors will take on the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference finals beginning Tuesday evening.
The Rockets are coming off a stunning comeback against the Los Angeles Clippers, when they became the ninth team in NBA history to win a series after being down three games to one.
Early in the series, it looked as if the Rockets weren’t really there. They lost Game 1 at home without Clippers point guard Chris Paul playing, and they didn't show much fight in Games 3 and 4.
In the fourth quarter of Game 6, they turned on the jets. They outscored the Clippers 40–15 to turn a 13-point deficit entering the quarter into a 12-point victory. Back in Houston for Game 7, they led wire-to-wire and made their first Western Conference finals in 18 years.
The Golden State Warriors faced some adversity of their own, falling behind the gritty Memphis Grizzlies two games to one. But the Warriors proved too much for the Grizzlies. Stephen Curry put on a show in Game 6, making 8 of 13 threes for 32 points to propel Golden State to its first Western Conference finals since 1976.
It’s impossible to look at this series and not see the big battle between the NBA’s two best players this year. Curry, the league MVP, will go up against MVP runner-up James Harden. Both these players lead high-powered offenses. The question is: Can Harden carry his Rockets against one of the most lethal offenses in NBA history?
Harden made it known that he believed he deserved the league’s top honor. ("I feel as though I am the MVP," he said before the award was given out.) He led a team that missed Dwight Howard for a long stretch — and one that includes mostly role players — to a 56-26 season that earned them a Southwest Division crown.
Harden has been inconsistent thus far in the playoffs, though. He missed most of the Rockets’ key run in Game 6 against the Clippers and wasn’t playing up to his standard.
In his defense, he was feeling ill, but for Harden not to play in a season-saving moment was alarming. He had 23 points, but he only made 5 of 20 shots in 30 minutes of play.
Going up against Curry, though, Harden has a chance to make a huge statement. Key role players and big performances from unexpected players got the Rockets past the Clippers, but it’s time for Harden to step up if Houston is going to make the Finals.
Other than just determining the champion of the West, this series will serve as a changing of the guard. Over the last 16 years, the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers won the Western Conference finals 12 times, with the Mavericks and Thunder filling in those other years.
Perhaps the Rockets or the Warriors are ready to start a dynasty of their own.
We’re sure to get an exciting Western Conference finals. It’ll come down to which superstar can lead his team to victory. The series begins in one of the loudest venues in the NBA, Oracle Arena. It’s so noisy that the New Orleans Pelicans coach suggested the "Roaracle" might be illegally loud.
Will home court advantage be enough to advance the Warriors, or will the Rockets spoil the party?
Photo: Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images