With the rise of both James Harden and Stephen Curry, the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors always seem to be compared to one another. Both are led by charismatic coaches with somewhat shaky playbooks who had long and successful NBA careers, have a star perimeter player known for hitting 3’s, have a center renowned for his defense, and a third great wing player. Many preseason predictions had either the Rockets at 4 and the Warriors at 5 or vice versa, creating the enticing prospect of seeing the growing rivalry between the two teams in the playoffs. But now over 50 games later, while Houston is looking stronger than ever after annihilating the Lakers last night, Golden State must forget about a championship and realize that they could very well find themselves in the lottery come May.
So, what has gone wrong for Golden State? To some degree, it can be blamed on injuries. Andre Iguodala missed 17 games with a strained hamstring, and even though he has been back for over two months, the effect still linger. Meanwhile, Andrew Bogut has missed the last four games and is currently questionable for tonight’s game. Jermaine O’Neal has finally returned from a wrist injury, and everyone worries about Curry’s ankles. But the reality is that Golden State’s injuries are not that much worse, if at all, than what the Rockets have dealt with.
A bigger problem for the Warriors is their youth. Most Rockets fans at the beginning of the season were hoping that just one of either Terrence Jones or Donatas Motiejunas would turn out to be a useful rotation player. However, both of them have made significant strides, and even Chandler Parsons has developed into a borderline All-Star and Dwight is looking more like Orlando Dwight by the day. In contrast, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson have had disappointing seasons after an impressive playoff run last season. Thompson seems to bounce from “unstoppable” to “doesn’t belong in the NBA” from one game to the next, while Barnes has been stuck in a 6th man role which he is not really suited to do. Still, the Rockets will need to pay great attention to Klay and Stephen Curry – because it is shooting guards who like to run off screens for jumpers that give James Harden the biggest trouble on the defensive end.
It is Houston’s offense however which will have the biggest challenge. The shooting and flashiness of Stephen Curry and the Warriors make people believe that they are a high-flying offensive team with a mediocre defense, but they are in fact a defensive titan that depends a bit too much on shooting to generate points – for example, they are ranked 3rd when it comes to defensive rating. A lot of this defensive impact can be traced to Andrew Bogut, who would be a credible Defensive Player of the Year candidate if Roy Hibbert didn’t exist. But even if Bogut does not play tonight, Andre Iguodala is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, one who made things extremely difficult for James Harden last year when Iguodala was a Denver Nugget.
Also, a final note as Houston looks to secure its place in the standings: 10 of Houston’s next 12 games will be against teams with a plus .500 record. This includes the Miami Heat twice, as well as contests against the Clippers, Oklahoma City, Indiana, and Portland. From my perspective, there is not that much difference between Houston getting the 2nd and 3rd seed – but there is a HUGE difference between the 3rd and the 4th. The Western Conference may be as difficult as ever, but the Oklahoma City Thunder have just shown themselves to be on a completely different level from every other Western team, with Kevin Durant a likely MVP and Russell Westbrook returning tonight from injury. The later Houston can put off dealing with them in the playoffs, while praying that someone else knocks them out, the better. If the Rockets can make it through this tough stretch winning more games than they lose, that alone will be a big boost in the standings.
Tip-off is at 9:30pm CST. Game will be on ESPN tonight.