It’s Curry! It’s Harden! It’s Warriors-Rockets!

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In addition to witnessing which team will be worthy of representing the Western Conference in the championship round, we’ll be treated to a tasty subplot in the conference finals: Is Steph Curry really a more valuable player than James Harden?

One way or another, a score will be settled and no doubt, an exciting if not exhausting series will take place between the two best teams, record-wise, in the West. The Warriors are bringing the most lethal offense-defense balance the league has seen in years with a season differential of plus-10, while the Rockets are bringing supreme survival skills because, to paraphrase former coach Rudy Tomjanovich, never underestimate the heart of a team that fell behind 3-1 in the semis.

You look at the Warriors and you see a team that’s deeper than Chicago pizza, with an abundance of 3-point shooters and frisky defenders. You look at the Rockets and you see castoffs and rejects being proudly reborn and refusing to shrink when thrust into important roles. You see these teams and you … well, c’mon. Seriously, now. You see Curry and Harden.

Curry is having an epic postseason from a shooting standpoint, being quicker to 100 3-pointers than anyone in history, and once again leaving defenders tangled in their own legs and ankles. The league MVP shows no signs of being a regular-season wonder and is usually in the mix whenever the Warriors are peeling off a tenacious scoring run.

Harden answered with a politically correct shoulder-shrug when he finished second to Curry for the MVP but nobody in basketball was buying that. He was genuinely hurt, believing he did more for his team — one that missed Dwight Howard for a stretch, one that’s loaded with role players — than Curry or anyone did for his. Harden has been somewhat inconsistent in the postseason and the Rockets’ biggest playoff moment — their Game 6 rally against the Clippers — did happen with him on the bench, partially weakened by illness. And yet, with the Rockets a heartbeat from the Finals and Curry standing in his way, Harden knows he finally has his chance to make a lasting statement.

Reaching this deep into the postseason has been a long time coming for both teams. Coincidentally, this is the 40th anniversary of the Warriors’ last championship, when Rick Barry, shades of Curry, was the core of the club. The Warriors reached the conference finals the next season but since then it’s been mostly dry, with the exception of the fun Run-TMC era and an epic takedown of the top-seeded Mavericks by Baron Davis and friends. After a lost decade where they simply didn’t register on the NBA pulse, it all came together swiftly for the Warriors, and now they’re loaded and built to last.

“It’s a credit to our organization and the moves that were in place well before I got here,” said Steve Kerr, the first-year Warriors coach.

Likewise, the Rockets enjoyed back-to-back titles in the mid-’90s then fell asleep. They were often beset by misfortune because the ambitious Tracy McGrady/Yao Ming project never really launched. And then they benefited when the tightwad Thunder refused to give Harden a max contract, and again when Howard didn’t want to be teammates with Kobe Bryant. General manager Daryl Morey did a marvelous job scrapping together unwanteds such as Josh Smith and Corey Brewer and Jason Terry and wouldn’t you know, the Rockets are back in the conference finals for the first time since Hakeem Olajuwon was dream shaking.

“The injuries through the year made us fight through adversity no matter what,” said Harden. “There’s nothing we feel can’t do.”

If nothing else, we’ll see the changing of the guard in the West. Over the last 16 years, the Lakers or the Spurs won the conference title 12 times. It was a dynastic run by those championship-rich teams, and now, the new blood is ready.

So are Curry and Harden and an argument that will see new life. The changing of the guard could be decided by the challenge of these two guards.

 

Five quick questions (and answers):

1. Should Dwight Howard have a larger role in the offense? Howard averaged 11 shots against the Clippers, which is rather generous considering he was up against DeAndre Jordan. Now he gets a slightly less defensive presence in Andrew Bogut. Howard is much more mobile than Bogut and, while he still lacks polish outside the paint, could force the Warriors to provide help, which could leave single coverage on James Harden and other shooters.

2. Has Harrison Barnes arrived? The cold stats might not reflect it but Barnes was tremendous in spots for the Warriors in the last round. He brings the elasticity and athleticism the Rockets must respect, and in addition, he’s bringing more confidence than ever in his short NBA career. Barnes shot 50 percent and averaged 5 rebounds against the Grizzlies and the growth he showed is evidence that Steve Kerr’s gamble is paying off. When the season began, Kerr benched Andre Iguodala in favor of Barnes, not because Barnes was the better player, but Barnes needed a confidence boost and to benefit from a chance to play with the first unit. Kerr reasoned then that, while Barnes might make mistakes early, he’d be secure in time for the playoffs.

3. Has Kerr arrived as a coach? Here in his first season, Kerr has taken the Warriors deeper than his predecessor did. That alone is enough to squash any doubts whether the Warriors did the right thing when shifting from Mark Jackson. Kerr leans heavily on his two very capable assistants, Alvin Gentry and Ron Adams, while staying in control himself; Kerr has no technical fouls in the playoffs after leading all coaches during the season. He admitted a week ago that he often dials up his mentors, such as Gregg Popovich, to seek their advice on how to approach playoff games and game plan against opponents. The best coaches are great listeners, and Kerr is taking that route.

4. Is Josh Smith having a charmed life right now? Sure seems that way. Just three months ago he was ceremoniously dumped by the Pistons, which marked the second time in three years that a team wanted nothing to do with him. Remember, the Hawks refused to even make him an offer when he became a free agent, leading him to sign a bloated deal in Detroit. New coach Stan Van Gundy thought he was a bad fit and cut him loose. But now, not only is Smith getting an image makeover by helping the Rockets, he’s getting paid (through 2028) by Detroit and becomes a free agent again this summer.

5. Is Oracle Arena the best house that’s still open? Absolutely. The arena by the bay is noisier than the nearby Oakland Airport. The atmosphere in Oracle is college-like without the bands and painted faces. Rich people suddenly loosen up and turn giddy when Curry puts another foolish defender in a clown suit. You should know that Oracle was always a fun and lively building even when the Warriors were stuck in losing and totally irrelevant outside of the Bay Area. That’s why they fetched a nice penny when they came on the market five years ago. If any of the four arenas provide an advantage to the home team, it’s Oracle and it’s not even close.

 

When the Warriors have the ball …

They were slowed in the semis by the grinding Grizzlies, which was understandable, and now there’s no reason the Warriors shouldn’t re-rev themselves. Curry and Klay Thompson naturally are the main forces in the offense and when both guards are scorching and headed for 20-plus points, the Warriors are tough to beat. The offense, designed by assistant coach Gentry, emphasizes spacing and ball movement and cutting, making the Warriors more than just your typical spread-the-floor team.

The Rockets feature very active and quick defenders such as Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry and Corey Brewer and therefore can rotate with the best and are no slouches in guarding the perimeter. But the most important defender will be Howard, their only shot blocker. He’ll allow the Rockets to play tight and risk Curry or Thompson attacking the rim.

 

When the Rockets have the ball …

Harden is averaging 26.3 points but shooting 43 percent in the playoffs. When he shoots close to 50 percent the Rockets will surely damage any defense, because then he forces the double team and is more likely to get to the free-throw line. The big surprise is Smith is shooting a respectable 36 percent on 3s and not only that, he’s being encouraged to take them by coach Kevin McHale.

The Warriors were rated No. 1 defensively during the season and here in the playoffs, they’re holding teams below 30 percent on 3-pointers, also tops in the postseason. That’s important, because the Rockets’ main weapon, besides Harden, is the 3-pointer. After initially taking a beating from Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, the Warriors improved their interior defense and that played a huge role in the elimination of Memphis.

 

In the clutch

How many players strike fear in the defense more than Curry when the clock is ticking? You can count them on one hand and perhaps one finger (props to you, LeBron James). Curry is dangerous because he can shake free and shoot from almost any angle or distance. But don’t sleep on Thompson, or course, or Iguodala, a veteran who doesn’t back down from a challenge.

There is only one play in the book when the game’s on the line, and that’s an isolation for Harden. It’s no secret and everyone in the building knows it. What happens next, however, depends on Harden and the defense and the referee. When he does surrender the ball, don’t be surprised if it falls to Terry, who is championship tested, or Ariza.

 

Wild cards

Pablo Prigioni was the unsung hero of Game 7 against the Clippers by swiping two inbounds passes and sinking an important 3-pointer. He became a savior of sorts for the Rockets after Patrick Beverley’s injury, giving the Rockets a steady hand of the bench at the point guard spot. Prigioni never expected to be in this position after he left the Knicks. Which means, he has something in common with Smith, Brewer, etc.

Draymond Green has morphed from a role player into a featured player for his ability to guard four and sometimes all five positions and also score in bunches. Not many players in the league are bringing his versatility, which make him valuable to the Warriors in any situation and against any team. Green is averaging almost 14 points with 10 rebounds and 5 assists in the playoffs. Unreal from where he was a year ago.

 

Prediction

The Warriors have had it relatively easy in the context of the rugged West. They didn’t have to play the Spurs or Clippers to this point. And that’s no slap at the Rockets; those two, from a matchup standpoint, were a lot more frightening. Also, the Warriors emerged from their first two rounds unscathed from a health standpoint, and that’s something you can’t take for granted in these playoffs. Essentially, the Warriors are in a solid groove and when we reflect on these playoffs, their toughest test might prove to be the slow-it-down Grizzlies. The Rockets play a similar style and therefore are playing right into Golden State’s hands; nobody can match the Warriors for up-tempo or 3-point play. Houston has Harden and Howard and therefore should put up a respectable fight; in the end, the Warriors are bringing the real MVP and better help. Warriors in six. 

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