This is the rematch that seemed destined from Day 1 of the 2018-19 season.
The Rockets took out the Jazz in five games while the Warriors closed out the Clippers in six. They now turn their attention towards a clash of the titans in the Western Conference Semifinals, the fourth time in five years they've met in the playoffs.
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- Game 1 - Monday, April 29 at Golden State - 1:00am IST
- Game 2 - Wednesday, May 1 at Golden State - 8:00am IST
- Game 3 - Sunday, May 5 at Houston - 6:30am IST
- Game 4 -Tuesday, May 7 at Houston - 7:00am IST
- Game 5 (if necessary) - Thursday, May 9 at Golden State - TBD
- Game 6 (if necessary) - Saturday, May 11 at Houston - TBD
- Game 7 (if necessary) - Monday, May 13 at Golden State - TBD
Recapping the season series
Result: Rockets won 3-1
Best game: January 3 - Rockets def. Warriors, 135-134 in OT (box score)
Best performance: James Harden (Jan. 3) - 44 points, 15 assists, 10 rebounds, game-winner in OT
This game didn't crack Harden's top-10 scoring games of the season. Nor was it the most assists or rebounds he had. Nor was it his only game-winning shot.
But for a historic season filled with memorable moments, Harden's game against the Warriors in early January takes the cake. It represented far more than merely another stat-stuffing performance as we're well beyond the point where anything in a box score should be surprising.
This was as big of a statement game as one can make in the regular season, lifting the Rockets to a road win over the two-time defending champions and doing it without Chris Paul. That game was also the jumping off point for one of the most dominant scoring months in NBA history, the first true steps towards Harden's proclamation that he might actually be the best player in a series against Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.
Houston gave Golden State all it could handle the entire season.
The Rockets blew out the Warriors in their first meeting way back in November, leading by as many as 32 in a game that Curry, Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green all played in.
After that OT thriller in January, the Rockets made it 3-for-3 against the Warriors just after the All-Star break, once again winning in Oracle Arena this time with Chris Paul dominating in a game they played without Harden.
Golden State's lone win came in the final meeting in March, a two-point game that came down to the wire. DeMarcus Cousins scored 20 of his 27 points in the second half of that game and was the Warriors' best player for long stretches. He is out for the series after suffering a torn quad in the 1st Round against the Clippers.
Key storyline: Can Chris Paul stay healthy?
What happens if Chris Paul never gets hurt in Game 5 of last year's Conference Finals?
It's one of the great unanswerable questions that could send ripple effects throughout the league for years to come. It's hard to pin Houston's losses in Games 6 or 7 on Paul's absence alone as the Rockets held double-digit leads in the second half of both games. They were still in it until the very bitter end.
Still, it's tough to imagine the Rockets suffering through an 0-27 slump from beyond the arc had Paul been on the floor during the pivotal cold stretch that ultimately spelled doom for the Rockets.
Earlier this season, Paul reminded everyone just how dominant he can be against the Warriors as he finished with 23 points and 17 assists in a win at Oracle Arena without Harden in the lineup. That was the type of performance that should inspire Houston in its quest to seek redemption for last year's shortcomings.
You can also make the case that given Paul's own checkered injury history, it's actually better for the Rockets to catch the Warriors a round earlier than the Conference Finals. That's one fewer series Paul needs to navigate prior to the epic showdown with Golden State.
If Paul can stay healthy, the Rockets have every right to believe that they can finish the job this time around.
Three Players to Watch
vs. Golden State in 2018-19 (three games): 33.3 points, 9.3 assists, 39.7 FG pct, 32.7 3-pt FG pct
Harden attempted over 16 3-pointers per game in his three matchups with the Warriors this season. If the Rockets are going to succesfully stand up to the Warriors, expect more of the same from Harden.
The biggest question as it pertains to Harden in this series is can he sustain play over an extended period?
He was spectacular in Game 1 last year, pouring in 41 points on 14-24 shooting. The rest of the series? Not so much. He shot just 38.6 percent from the field including 20.3 percent from beyond the arc over the final six games. The last three were particularly bad as Harden went ice cold, making just 6-36 from the 3-point line.
For the Rockets to pull this off, they'll likely need more consistency from their superstar.
vs. Houston in 2018-19 (three games): 25.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 28.6 3-pt FG percentage
A couple of items to consider with Durant:
- How will he fare as a playmaker?
- Who guards him?
One of the reasons that Houston nearly knocked off the Warriors last year was it goaded Durant into playing tons of isolation which led to lots of contested midrange jumpers. Yes, Durant is one of the very best isolation scorers of all-time. But it also takes the Warriors away from doing what they do best which is whipping the ball around, getting out in transition, cutting endlessly and letting it fly from beyond the arc.
During the regular season, Durant averaged just 2.7 assists per game against the Rockets as the Warriors went 0-3 in games he played (the one win over Houston came without Durant in the lineup). His 2.7 assists per game against the Rockets were his second-fewest against any team during the regular season. Given that Golden State went just 6-10 in games he finished with three or fewer assists this season, it's certainly worth monitoring.
From Houston's perspective, the key question will be who guards KD? That responsibility last year fell mostly on Trevor Ariza who is of course no longer on the roster. If the regular season is any indication, P.J. Tucker will get the first look as he matched up with Durant 111 times, far more than anyone else (next: James Harden, 29). Should Durant light up Tucker or get him into foul trouble, this Rockets team has fewer perimeter options with length to potentially bother KD (in addition to the 6'8" Ariza, 6'8" Luc Mbah a Moute is also no longer on the team).
vs. Houston in 2018-19 (four games): 27.7 minutes, 5.3 points, 42.1 FG percentage
Make no mistake, the Warriors are only going as far as Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green take them. This isnt some proclamation that Iguodala is more important than any of those four All-Stars.
But there's nuance to this Warriors team, especially in a year where they've been thinner than in year's past. It's impossible to understate the importance of Iguodala who missed the final four games of last year's series.
Iguodala looks energized so far in this postseason in ways that he wasn't a year ago even when available. He also has the penchant for making life miserable for scorers used to getting to their spots. It's an incredibly small sample size, but over the first three games of the 2018 Conference Finals, James Harden shot just 1-5 and had three turnovers in the 26 possessions he was matched up against Iguodala with just one of those attempts inside the 3-point line.
Iguodala won't be the primary defender against Harden, a job that will likely fall on Klay Thompson. But he gives Golden State another elite option defensively, one it largely missed when these teams danced last postseason.
- Houston's eight wins against the Warriors over the last two seasons (regular season and playoffs) are twice as many as any other team. At 8-6, Houston is one of three teams with a winning record against Golden State since the start of 2017-18 (both Portland and Utah are 4-3).
- This is the fourth time that the Rockets and Warriors will meet in the postseason, with the first-ever postseason meeting between the franchises coming in the 2015 Western Conference Finals. The Warriors have won all three previous series.
- Golden State has reached the NBA Finals in each of the last four seasons. Should the Warriors get there again, they'd be just the second team in NBA history to get there in five consecutive seasons. The Boston Celtics reached the NBA Finals in 10 straight years spanning 1957 to 1966.
- Earlier this postseason, Stephen Curry passed Ray Allen to become the all-time leader in made 3-pointers in the postseason. Allen made 385 in 171 games. Curry passed Allen in his 91st career playoff game.
- Kevin Durant is currently 12th all-time in career postseason points. He is less than 100 points away from passing Larry Bird for 11th.
- Among coaches with at least two postseason appearances, Steve Kerr has the highest winning percentage by any coach in NBA playoff history,