8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Warriors -4.5, Over/Under: 237.5
The stars are on display tonight in Houston, Texas as the Rockets host the surging Golden State Warriors in an contest that is sure to provide it’s fair share of highlights. Of course, that’s something that’s become a regular habit for the Warriors (36-6, 1st in Western Conference), who have run through the schedule of late like a buzz saw through tissue paper; winners of five consecutive outings, including twenty out of their last twenty-four, it’s safe to say that this group has found the requisite chemistry since adding former MVP Kevin Durant over the Summer. Needless to say, they don’t look all that different from the group that set a league record most wins in a single season; Steve Kerr’s charges have been as potent as ever on the offensive end of the court, averaging 117.8 points (2nd Overall) on a ridiculously efficient 50.0% shooting from the field (1st Overall), including 56.3% from within in three-point arc (1st Overall) and 38.5% from beyond it (3rd Overall), while accruing a staggering 31.4 assists (1st Overall), and posting a lights out 56.8% Effective Field Goal Percentage, which surprise, surprise, leads the NBA. Back in the Summer, there was a great deal of debate as to just Durant, would fit in with the likes of reigning MVP Stephen Curry (24.6 PTS, 46.5% FG, 39.7% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 6.1 AST, 1.8 STL) and Klay Thompson (21.2 PTS, 47.2% FG, 39.6% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 2.0 AST), but the truth is that the four-time scoring champion looks like he’s been playing with these guys for ages; invoking memories of LeBron James assimilating himself in Miami, Durant has established himself as the team’s alpha dog, averaging a team-high 26.2 points on 54.4% shooting from the field, including 40.5% from three, along with 8.6 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.7 blocks, with Curry (unsurprisingly) taking a bit of a backseat to his new teammate. Then again, sometimes he just locks in and dominates the game, which is precisely what happened in Wednesday Night’s 121-100 decimation of his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. As he did in his first reunion matchup, Durant absolutely went OFF, torching his old teammates for forty points on a ridiculous 13-of-16 shooting from the field (81.3%), including 5-of-7 from downtown (71.4%), along with twelve rebounds, four assists. and three blocks. Believe it or not, the game was actually very competitive for a good bit, with the score squared away at fifty-six points apiece at Halftime. However, the hosts put together a whopping 37-point Third Quarter to break the game wide open, amassing a fifteen-point lead heading into the final frame of action. Kerr’s charges shot a superb 54.1% from the field, including 10-of-21 from deep (47.6%), while exhibiting excellent ball movement assisting on all but eleven of their forty-six field goals. Despite Russell Westbrook’s Quadruple-Double, Golden State relegated Oklahoma City to just 42.2% shooting from the field, while forcing them into eighteen turnovers, ten of which were attributed to Westbrook. With that said, there won’t be much time to rest for Durant’s reunion tour will continue in Houston in the form of his former teammate James Harden, who has emerged as a bonafide Triple-Double Machine in his own right this season. There will also be some added incentive here, folks, for when they last met Harden and Co. found themselves on the winning side of a thrilling 132-127 Double Overtime Victory at Oracle Arena.
Meanwhile, as the Warriors run roughshod over the league once again, there is something going on down in Southern Texas, where the Rockets (33-12, 3rd in Western Conference) are up to their collective necks in a full-on resurrection. Everyone knows that last season was one best left in the rearview mirror, mired in inconsistent play and infighting in the lockerroom. However, the hiring of Mike D’Antoni has apparently awoken something in this team, particularly in it’s MVP candidate James Harden (28.9 PTS, 44.4% FG, 34.7% 3FG, 8.3 REB, 11.6 AST, 1.3 STL), who after taking over at Point Guard has seen his game go to an entirely different level. Now let’s be honest, the idea of a mercurial gunner like Harden making the switch to a position traditionally associated with distributing the basketball was met with a great deal of criticism, but we have to hand it to D’Antoni for seeing the potential for greatness, this guy is actually leading the NBA in assists, dishing out a healthy 11.6 dimes a night. Keep in mind that this dude led the league in Field Goal Attempts last year by a wide margin (1,617), so this is quite the sign of growth from the 27-year old. If it wasn’t for the exploits of the aforementioned Westbrook, the four-time All-Star would be getting even more publicity, racking up a stellar twelve Triple-Doubles of his own in just forty-five games. However, there are times in which he must shed the role of distributor and slip into his previous persona, which is what happened in Wednesday Night’s 111-92 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks at the Toyota Center; Harden dropped a game-high thirty-eight points on 14-of-25 shooting from the field, including 4-of-11 from three (36.4%), along with six rebounds, eight assists, and a pair of blocks. As they have all year long, the Rockets took their liberties from beyond the arc, attempting a wild forty-four three-pointers (making fourteen), with Eric Gordon (17.8 PTS, 42.8% FG, 40.3% 3FG, 2.7 REB, 2.8 AST) accounting for a whopping seventeen of those attempts (he made seven). Anyone familiar with the name D’Antoni could have saw this coming when he was hired over the Summer, for any team he’s helmed has never been shy about jacking up threes with reckless abandon. Houston has been no different, leading the league in both Three-Point Field Goals (14.8) and Three-Point Attempts (40.0), while making a healthy 37.0% of them to boot (6th Overall). Furthermore, five different players have been the green light in this regard, averaging at least four attempts from distance per game, with both aforementioned Harden and Gordon attempting at least nine a night. Granted, while this all makes for very entertaining basketball. it’s highly debatable as to how successful it will be come the Playoffs, where the Rockets will at least have to moderately slow their opponents down. But don’t look now, for lost in Harden’s Triple-Doubles and the cavalcade of three-pointers, this team has improved a good deal on the defensive end of the floor; while nobody is going to confuse them with the Bad Boys Era Pistons, they have shown more attention here yielding 45.6% shooting from the field (17th Overall), including 35.8% from within the three-point arc (16th Overall), while securing 44.4 rebounds (3rd Overall), and forcing a league-high 14.9 turnovers (1st Overall). They absolutely stymied the Bucks Wednesday Night, permitting just 39.8% shooting from the floor, including 7-of-28 from downtown, while harassing them into eighteen turnovers. However, the highlight of that performance, was holding the young visitors to a mere twelve points in the Second Quarter. Now we doubt that they’ll be able to do that to the Warriors, but they may not have to since they’ve proven to be one of the few teams in the league these days capable of trading baskets with the two-time Western Conference Champions. In that aforementioned Double Overtime thriller back on December 1st, they actually held Golden State below 45.0% shooting, with Harden posting a Triple-Double (29 PTS, 15 REB, 13 AST), while the bench helped out greatly with forty-nine points, including twenty-three of that figure courtesy of Gordon.