This is where the Rockets (and their fans) find themselves. It's quiet. Too quiet. Here we are, entering the Western Conference Finals against the Warriors. It seemed destined since the beginning of the season. The Warriors and Rockets broke out of the gates strong and, as the season draws to a close, are pitted against each other to determine which team will hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
My apologies to the Cavs and Hawks, but this year's champion is coming from the Western Conference. Thus, in this fan's biased opinion we are watching the true NBA Finals starting tonight. History won't record it this way (nor should it). As fans--as people who live, eat, and breathe this game--we owe respect and acknowledgement of this reality to both the Warriors and the Rockets. One of them has to overcome a champion-caliber juggernaut just to earn the right to play for the actual trophy.
Technically, this has already occurred for both teams. Houston toppled a very good Clippers team after dispatching short-handed Dallas while the Warriors overcame a strong Grizzlies team (thanks, Tony Allen's hamstring) after giving Anthony Davis his first taste of post season competition. I think most of us agree that any of the 4 teams in the Western Conference Semis was good enough to win it all. In the end, there can be only one.
In my excitement for this upcoming series I scoured the internet for some Rockets articles to help feed the fanatic in me. It's been....disappointing. It's almost as if no one wants to stick their neck out and hype the Rockets for fear of appearing foolish since, apparently, we are 100% losing this series. What!?!?!?
There are lots of reasons this series is up for grabs. There are lots of reasons to be excited beyond the joy of simply being here. We can win this thing. I'm completely serious. WE CAN WIN THIS THING!
That was us. Yet, instead of becoming extinguished under the power and the pressure of the NBA playoffs something else happened. We rose up. We grew stronger. From coach to player, everyone found a new, deeper level.
I have seldom found myself inspired by Dwight Howard. Awed? Amazed? Amused? Aghast, even? Yes. Yet, in game 6, after getting two early fouls, there he was on camera waiving off Coach McHale who wanted to sub him out in order to protect him from further hindrance. Two things happened. First, McHale believed in him and allowed him to stay in the game. Second, Dwight came through playing 40 minutes, posting a 20 & 21, and playing his butt off on defense while netting only 2 more fouls. Dwight inspired me with that performance. It showed me that he gets it--he is ready. (He tried it again in game 7, but McHale wasn't going to roll the dice two games in a row--which I also agree with).
Josh Smith will always be Josh Smith...and I've made my peace with that. Yes, he makes risky passes, jacks unnecessary threes early in the shot clock, and is just as likely to fill a box score as he is to leave it empty. Yet, there he was taking it to Blake Griffin, making him work on defense and offense. There he was, in the biggest of moments blossoming under the pressure--not wilting. His path has not been easy and the meat grinder the public and media have run him through over the years would have left most people a rattled mess--at best.
People will continue to pick on his flaws, but what I see in Josh Smith is a guy whose resilience and lack of fear make him a nightmare for other teams. Combined with a quiet determination, a knack for defense, and a skill set that would please Bruce Lee if he were here watching the NBA.
Combined, I believe Dwight and Josh make each other better and stronger mostly because they truly love one another and don't want to let the other down. You can't measure that and it cannot be over-estimated.
James Harden takes a lot (read: tons and tons and tons...) of flack for just about everything he does. Even compliments come through clinched teeth and are usually delivered in the most back-handed fashion. I suppose if I only read box scores and Twitter I'd feel the same way. The reality is he is an MVP and opposing teams know it. Take a look at this and think about the level of defense/game planning he has had to fight through to achieve it.
That's seriously good, people. He's playing less and producing more. He's also got a .618 TS%.
The Warriors will test him with Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala along with having Green and Bogut help inside. I don't think the Warriors will offer much more resistance than the Clippers did. Redick and Paul played inside James' jersey as much as the referees would allow and DeAndre Jordan is an excellent rim protector (despite popular opinion I can't understand). I actually think James will have a better go of it against the W's defense.
The W's will have to prove they can defend our pick n roll sets. They will have to keep Bogut out of foul trouble. They will try to force us into playing small ball only to realize we are also good at small ball.
Personally, I want us to try and shut down everyone else and let Curry go wild. It won't be pretty. It may hurt us at first, but I think he will wear down over a series as fatigue and pressure begin to burden him. It is a strategy that requires diligence to see it through and is risky considering who he is. I believe it takes a team to win and I believe taking his team away from him (as best we can) will work.
Our role players--that filthy, nasty term--are what will make this series. Harden will be there. Dwight will be there. Josh, Corey, Trevor, Jet, Pablo, and Terrence are what we've got to stack up against the W's group of Green, Barnes, Livingston, Iguodala, Lee, Barbosa, Speights (who is out for game 1), and Ezeli. Yes, they are deep and talented. They have speed, length, size, offense, and defense on their bench. Whatever is needed they can adapt to.
The challenge is real, but so are we. Be patient as there is a strong chance we come home down 0-2. That is ok. We all know it's not over until one team wins 4. I have yet to find a single soul outside of the Rockets' camp who thinks we stand a chance. That's just the way we like it...