By Jason Keidel
As we stumble into middle age, we know just enough to know that we know very little.
Especially in sports. Just consider Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, which had Cleveland favored at Boston. The Cavs got rolled by the Celtics.
Opinions can’t really be deemed right or wrong. But if you think the Houston Rockets should be favored over the Golden State Warriors simply because they won more games and hence have the home-court advantage in the Western Conference finals, well, you’re off.
Save for a few games in the 2016 NBA Finals, the Warriors have been by far the best team in the NBA for the last four years. And once they added the overkill of Kevin Durant, the Warriors became a the juggernaut of juggernauts. Indeed, the series that starts tonight is the first one in which the Warriors don’t have home-court advantage since 2014. To italicize their playoff dominance, they haven’t lost more than one game in their last six playoff series. The only thing Houston can cling to — beyond playing Game 1 at home — is the fact that they beat Golden State two out of three times this season.
Yet even with all the history on Golden State’s side, despite the fact that the Warriors have been the talk, chalk, and easily the most complete team in the NBA for years, they are not the club that should feel the most pressure in this series.
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Indeed, it’s the Rockets who should be shouldering the most weight — of home court, of history, and of expectations. They worked their collective tails off to get here, to finish the season with the best record in the sport (67-15). And to get this game against this team in their building. In fact, the Rockets don’t even hide their vocational OCD over the Warriors. GM Daryl Morey said as much, that everything he and his Rockets do — on and off the court — is done vis-a-vis their near-flawless rivals in Oakland. “I think I’m not supposed to say that,” was Morey’s exact quote, “but we’re basically obsessed with ‘How do we beat the Warriors?'”
Morey signed the guys who need to win this series even more than he does. The three most important Rockets need to prove they’re more than playoff poseurs, that the mask of regular-season success won’t be ripped off the moment they face a team of similar skill. That burden belongs to James Harden, Chris Paul, and Mike D’Antoni: three entirely different people with winding journeys to get here together.
Harden is the runaway favorite to be NBA MVP. D’Antoni is a clear candidate for Coach of the Year. And Paul is playing in his first conference finals. Harden is the only one among the three to play in the NBA Finals, losing to the Miami Heat when he was still in Oklahoma City. Paul and D’Antoni are late-May neophytes, despite playing or coaching for teams that should have made deeper runs. Paul has blown a 3-1 playoff series lead, while D’Antoni lorded over those fast-break, Matrix-style teams in Phoenix, led by Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Shawn Marion.
All three Rockets have posted impressive regular-season stats. And all three have failed publicly and profoundly in the postseason. And you could argue that this is the best chance all three will get to add more glowing strokes to their respective legacies. Harden is in his absolute prime, and may not be flanked by this much talent again. Paul just turned 33, not old by normal metrics, but old by NBA point-guard standards. D’Antoni is 67, not ancient but clearly in the back-nine of his coaching career.
By contrast the core, homegrown Warriors already have two rings, and Durant got his last year, at LeBron’s expense, while showing us that it was Russell Westbrook, not Durant, who was impossible to win with. Sure, losing to the Rockets would hurt, a lot, but they would still be the clear Vegas favorites to win it all next season. And since this series is considered the de facto NBA Finals, whomever wins four games should cruise to the NBA title.
It’s Houston with the burden. They have the better record, even if not quite the better team. Houston has to win this year. Or Houston will have a problem.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.