By Jason Keidel
The Houston Rockets, as hot as their name implies, haven’t lost in 15 games. And they have quickly become the talk and chalk of the sport, perhaps even more so than the Golden State Warriors. Moreover, the Rockets are 32-1 when their three best players are in the lineup, and they’ve defeated the Warriors twice in three games this season.
Is that enough? Does that really make the Rockets the favorites to dethrone the heretofore unbeatable Warriors?
In a sense, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we think it’s possible. We were supposed to sleepwalk through this NBA season, all the while griping about the interminable, 82-game schedule that was stretched even wider this year to relieve players from the rigors of back-to-back road games. The fait accompli was Cleveland versus Golden State, at which point the latter would sweep the former.
But now the Rockets are a serious speed bump on the Warriors’ ride to immortality. Even if their 15-game winning streak resulted in a microscopic conference lead over the Warriors, who lose at only a slightly greater rate. Even if James Harden, this year’s runaway MVP, has yet to show he’s playoff hard. Even if Chris Paul has never played in an NBA Finals. Even if Mike D’Antoni has yet to coach in one.
Indeed, for the Rockets to vanquish the Warriors, it will take a major change in hardwood character from their main characters to reach the NBA Finals. D’Antoni has long been viewed as a gimmicky, offense-first coach who gets exposed long before June. Harden has yet to shed the shards of his playoff meltdown last season. And for all his athletic splendor and production, Chris Paul has yet to play in a conference finals.
Maybe this is what all three needed to reach that next rung — each other. While it’s premature to declare the Rockets the best team in the league, it’s well past time to wonder if they’re legitimate threats.Their only loss since January 15 was a two-point loss, at New Orleans, when the Pelicans still had Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins in the lineup. (Houston hasn’t lost in March and did not lose a game in February.)
LeBron James is still the world’s best basketball player, but the truth is the Cavaliers haven’t been right since they traded Kyrie Irving before the season started. They can trade and tweak and tinker, but there’s no combination of lesser players that can compensate for an all-world talent like Irving, which is why the Celtics won that trade, no matter whom they dealt to get him.
The Warriors smoked the Cavs in last year’s championship, which means the chasm would only widen this June, with the Warriors as good or better than they were last year, Year 2 of the Kevin Durant experiment/juggernaut. Things have become so turbulent in Cleveland that folks are debating the merits of King James migrating to Los Angeles to play for the Lakers and build his cinematic brand in the shadow of Hollywood.
In fairness, many of us thought this CP3 experiment would bomb because of Paul and Harden are both ball hogs. But they have made it work to the tune of a 49-13 record and video-game winning streaks, already two such streaks of at least 14 games. Either team is more than good enough to beat any team from the emaciated Eastern Conference, home to five teams with fewer than 25 wins.
So the Western Conference Finals -0 provided the Warriors and Rockets play in it — will be seen as the de facto NBA Finals. Are Harden, Paul, and Clint Capela enough to keep the Warriors in check? It doesn’t really matter. What matters is we think it’s possible. Very possible.
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.