8:00 PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Rockets -1, Over/Under: 234
With just over two weeks to go in the Regular Season, there is surprisingly a great deal of things to be decided, particularly in terms of postseason seeding as the Golden State Warriors face the Houston Rockets tonight at Toyota Center, in a meeting of two of the West’s top three teams. So much for the Warriors (59-14, 1st in Western Conference) making a third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals being a foregone conclusion, as a late season injury to former MVP Kevin Durant (25.3 PTS, 53.7% FG, 37.8% 3FG, 8.2 REB, 4.8 AST, 1.1 STL, 1.6 BLK) has left them searching for answers as their competition closes the gap in the standings. Indeed, this is a case of God bleeding, and therefore in the eyes of everyone else beneath him, no longer being God; after a record-breaking 73-win campaign, and acquiring the aforementioned four-time Scoring Champion, Golden State has already lost as many games at this point than they did heading into last year’s NBA Finals, with their stranglehold on the Conference as tenuous as it’s been during their reign at the top. After Durant suffered an MCL Sprain in his left knee during a collision with teammate Zaza Pachulia back on February 28th, the Warriors struggled mightily without him, dropping five out of their following seven contests, failing to replace his presence on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court. With no real timetable for his return, the skeptics immediately began to write them off. However, give Steve Kerr and his charges credit, for it appears that they have righted the ship, heading into tonight’s tilt riding a seven-game winning streak, in which they’ve defeated their opponents by a sizable margin of 17.7 points. Perhaps the most encouraging sign was in Sunday’s 106-94 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, a team that they have at times struggled against in the past. With the game 83-81 in favor of the Dubs at Halftime, the home side put their foot on the gas in the final frame, outscoring Memphis 32-13 the rest of the way, shooting a scorching 54.2% from the field, including 17-of-31 from beyond the arc (54.8%). Steph Curry (24.8 PTS, 46.3% FG, 40.0% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 6.5 AST, 1.8 STL) and Klay Thompson (22.2 PTS, 47.1% FG, 41.8% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 2.0 AST) regained their shooting wizardry, accounting for a cumulative fifty-two points on 20-of-36 shooting from the floor (55.6%), including 12-of-22 from downtown (54.5%), outscoring the Grizzlies a dozen points by themselves in that regard. Kerr also received quite the boost from his Bench, which outscored their counterparts 43-20 Sunday Night, led by Andre Iguodala’s (7.2 PTS, 51.8% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 3.4 AST, 1.0 STL) twenty points on 7-of-8 shooting (87.5%). As has been the case throughout the season, Golden State’s carelessness (eighteen turnovers) with the basketball cost them earlier in the contest, but their penchant for distribution saw them once again overcome this flaw, as they dished a very healthy thirty assists. Tonight’s meeting with the Rockets begins a crucial stretch for the Warriors, who will encounter Houston (twice) and San Antonio in a four-day span, which could dramatically alter the pecking order at the top of the conference. One thing is for certain though, expect a ton of points to be scored tonight; Golden State has averaged 126.0 points compared to 120.0 for Houston, with the two teams combining for a ridiculous 198.5 field goal attempts per game. The teams split their two previous meetings this season, with the latter taking a Double-Overtime thriller at ORACEL Arena back in December 1st (132-127), with the former returning the favor at Toyota Center on January 20th (125-108). For his efforts, Curry has not been at his best against the Rockets this season, as the two-time reigning MVP has shot just 42.5% from the floor, which is in line with his general performance during the month of March, where he’s netted just 44.8% from the floor, his lowest shooting percentage during any month this season.
Meanwhile, sitting at Third in the West, and eight games behind the Warriors in the standings, the Rockets (51-22, 3rd in Western Conference) have a lot of ground to make up and not a lot of time to do so. However, with the Playoffs just over two weeks away, it’s impossible to label the 2016-2017 campaign as anything other than a success for this team. A year ago, they endured a trainwreck of a season, marred by a coaching change, injuries, and a feud between stars before Golden State put them out of their misery in the First Round of the Playoffs. Now, an offensive-minded Head Coach, an MVP candidate moving to Point Guard, and a revitalized supporting cast has collectively helped this team rehab their image to the point where all the ills they suffered from last year have been relegated to ancient history. Credit goes to Mike D’Antoni, who after failed stints with high profile franchises such as the Knicks and Lakers, has successfully imported his prolific offensive principles to a team that wasn’t lacking in this aspect; Houston has averaged 115.8 points (2nd Overall) on 46.6% shooting from the field (9th Overall), including 55.3% from within the three-point arc (2nd Overall) and 36.4% beyond it (11th Overall), while dishing out a healthy 25.2 assists (2nd Overall), and taking frequent trips to Charity Stripe with 20.2 Free-Throws (2nd Overall) on 26.3 attempts (3rd Overall). Furthermore, no team has embraced the Money Ball more so than the Rockets, who have made (14.7) and attempted (40.3) more Three-Point Field Goals than any other team in the league, including the Warriors. His decision to move James Harden (29.4 PTS, 44.8% FG, 35.2% 3FG, 8.0 REB, 11.3 AST, 1.5 STL), one of the league’s most mercurial gunners, to Point Guard, while initially met with great skepticism, has proven to be a masterstroke, as the offense has flourished with the bearded one serving as not only the primary scorer, but distributor as well. Through seventy-three games, the five-time All-Star has averaged a career-high 11.3 assists, while also accumulating nineteen triple-doubles, second-most in the league this season behind the otherworldly exploits of Russell Westbrook. Speaking of his former teammate, the two MVP front-runners met in a shootout Sunday, in which the Rockets ultimately outlasted the Thunder in a 137-125 victory, in which the hosts surpassed 100 points in the Third Quarter. Harden scored twenty-two points on 8-of-15 shooting from the field (53.3%), including 2-of-8 from three (25.0%), while totaling fifteen assists, before suffering a mildly sprained wrist, which while not considered serious has prompted D’Antoni to lament resting his star periodically over these final nine games. The Supporting Cast played a major role in Houston’s victory Sunday, with Trevor Ariza (11.6 PTS, 41.1% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 5.8 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.8 STL) and Eric Gordon (16.5 PTS, 41.3% FG, 38.0% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 2.7 AST) scoring twenty-four points apiece, while Trade Deadline Acquisition Lou Williams (15.0 PTS, 41.6% FG, 40.2% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 2.6 AST) dropping a team-high thirty-one points on 11-of-15 shooting (73.3%) off the Bench. Their depth has been a major component of their success thus far, as six different players have scored in double-figures, with virtually all of them proving lethal from long range, with four of them knocking down at least 178 three-pointers.