9:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Rockets -3.5, Over/Under: 230
Arguably the top rivalry in the NBA reconvenes tonight as the surging Houston Rockets look for a rare Regular Season Sweep of the Golden State Warriors, from Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. A common thread of these games coming down the stretch is that it’s featured combatants are trending in opposite directions, and this one is no different, for the Warriors (45-21, 1st in Western Conference) have struggled of late, much more so than we’re accustomed to seeing in their four-year reign over the league. We’ve said time and again that at this point the only thing that can stop Golden State is themselves, whether it’s infighting, complacency, or injuries, they have remained so far above their competition that even through their struggles they hold a commanding vice grip on the Western Conference. However, all of the above has taken place in this, their fifth year as a dynasty, and if you pay attention to the media, may be their last together. Yes, there is a looming storm ahead, with the likes of Kevin Durant (27.4 PTS, 51.3% FG, 35.9% 3FG, 6.7 REB, 5.7 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.2 BLK, 24.5 PER), Klay Thompson (22.4 PTS, 47.2% FG, 40.2% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.6 BLK, 17.4 PER), Draymond Green (7.0 PTS, 43.3% FG, 25.0% 3FG, 7.5 REB, 7.1 AST, 1.5 STL, 1.0 BLK, 12.7 PER), and DeMarcus Cousins (15.2 PTS, 45.0% FG, 23.3% 3FG, 7.8 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.3 STL, 1.6 BLK, 19.7 PER) all set to hit Unrestricted Free Agency in the Offseason, meaning that the Front Office has a slew of very difficult decisions to make. However, on the court it’s been nearly as intriguing, with everything from injuries to Steph Curry (27.9 PTS, 47.5% FG, 43.0% 3FG, 5.3 REB, 5.2 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.4 BLK, 24.3 PER) and the aforementioned Green, to the friction between the latter and Head Coach Steve Kerr, to the integration of Cousins into the Rotation after the behemoth missed over half of the season rehabbing from a torn Achilles, to the raising of a thinning Bench, playing a part in their story thus far. Throw in the fact that this season will be their last ORACLE Arena, and it altogether feels like the end of a journey, even without the media steering it in that particular direction, though there is still plenty left to be decided for a team that remains the prohibitive favorite to hoist their fourth Larry O’Brien Trophy in the past five years. With that said, coming hot on their heels are the Rockets, who have become the most persistent threat to their reign of dominance, having defeated them in each of their three previous meetings this season. Kerr’s charges have gotten worked on the defensive end in each affair, yielding an average of 120.0 Points on 43.1% shooting, including 36.9% from beyond the arc, while permitting 25.3 Assists in comparison to forcing them into just 9.7 Turnovers. The other problem is that thy can’t seem to keep them off the Charity Stripe, where it’s no secret that Houston makes a rather healthy living, netting 22.3 of their 26.0 Free-Throws. Conversely, the Warriors have proven to be maddeningly inconsistent in taking care of the basketball, committing 15.7 Turnovers opposed to 25.7 Assists, which is well below their season average of 29.1, which is tops in the NBA.
This current stretch that the Warriors find themselves in has only thrown more gas on the fire of their imminent departure, losing six of their last nine contests, including an embarrassing 11-115 loss at home to the bottom-feeding Phoenix Suns on Sunday Night. That’s right, folks, the fifteen-win Phoenix Suns. It was the first time in eighteen tires that the Suns managed to upend the Warriors, and their first victory in twenty attempts at ORACLE alone. That’s a decade, folks. Trailing 111-106 late in the Fourth Quarter, Thompson knocked down a pair of Free-Throws to cut the deficit to Three Points, and after a pair of missed attempts, Curry’s potentially game-tying Three fell awry with just Twenty-Three Seconds left on the clock. From there, the visiting side stepped to the Line and made Two Free-Throws of their own, and wouldn’t relinquish the lead. The Fourth Quarter was a disaster for the hosts, who inside of those Twelve Minutes, witnessing the aforementioned Durant fall to the floor with a bruised right ankle, ending his night with half the period left to play. Whose to say how this game would have transpired had Durant, who scored Twenty-Five Points on 9-of-17 shooting (52.9%), remained on the court, but it doesn’t change the fact that this was an altogether as lackluster a performance as imaginable from the Dubs, who allowed Phoenix to shoot 48.8% from the field, including 10-of-25 from downtown (40.0%), assisting on Twenty-Six of their Forty-Two Field Goals, while turning the rock over fourteen times. Curry and Thompson accounted for Forty-Six Points but overcame a really slow start (4-of-22 3FG in the first three quarters) before ending up shooting a combined 16-of-42 overall (38.1%), including 8-of-30 from three (26.7%), while nearly committing as many Turnovers (9) as Assists (13). Durant’s status for tonight’s affair is currently up in the air, with Kerr proclaiming him “Day-to-Day”. If there is a silver lining in Golden State’s recent struggles, perhaps their fans can rest easy for their is a bit of a premise for their play of late; the Warriors struggled mightily down the stretch a year ago, losing seven out of ten heading into the Playoffs, and we all know how that turned out, right?
Meanwhile, after a slew of injuries hindered their progress throughout the first half of the season, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team in the league hotter than the Rockets (42-35, 3rd in Western Conference). This was a team that in early December stood at a meager 11-14, despite leading the NBA with Sixty-Five Victories a year ago, and pushing the Warriors to a fateful seventh game in the Western Conference Finals. In their case, Houston’s problems early on were two-fold. First and foremost, they suffered what could only be described as hangover from their bitter defeat in the Western Finals. Signing Carmelo Anthony (13.4 PTS, 40.5% FG, 32.8% 3FG, 5.4 REB, 0.5 AST, 0.4 STL, 0.7 BLK, 11.0 PER), and then trading him shortly thereafter, sending away Three & D Specialist Trevor Ariza didn’t help matters either, which was only compounded by injuries to both Chris Paul (15.3 PTS, 41.1% FG, 34.7% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 8.3 AST, 2.0 STL, 18.7 PER) and Clint Capela (16.8 PTS, 63.5% FG, 12.5 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.6 BLK, 23.4 PER), with the former’s strained hamstring causing him to miss Twenty-Three contests, while the latter missed Fifteen Outings with torn ligaments in his hand. However, this team was as active as ever in trying to supplement these holes, acquiring the likes of Austin Rivers (9.7 PTS, 42.0% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 2.2 REB, 2.6 AST, 0.6 STL, 8.7 PER), Kenneth Faried (15.0 PTS, 59.6% FG, 9.4 REB, 0.9 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.9 BLK, 23.2 PER), and Iman Shumpert (3.6 PTS, 27.0% FG, 30.0% 3FG, 2.0 REB, 1.0 AST, 0.5 STL, 3.7 PER), veteran players that can fill a variety of roles, which only looks smarter now that Paul and Capela have finally returned from injury. As a result, Mike D’Antoni has the luxury of a deeper rotation, which is something that he has rarely made use of in the past. It should be interesting to see if he incorporates a deeper rotation in the Playoffs, for this newfound depth has played no small role in their recent surge of success; the Rockets have won nine consecutive games, and thirteen of their last sixteen affairs, which has propelled them up the Standings in the Western Conference. Of course, reigning MVP James Harden (36.2 PTS, 43.6% FG, 35.9% 3FG, 6.5 REB, 7.5 AST, 2.1 STL, 0.7 BLK, 29.9 PER) has made the case of retaining that award, particularly while Paul and Capela were sidelined, putting together a historic stretch in which the prolific Shooting Guard scored at least Thirty Points in Thirty-Two straight contests. Furthermore, you could certainly make the argument that he’s been even more impressive this season, for his 36.2 Points per Game is the second-highest scoring average since Michael Jordan’s 37.1 Points per Game during the 1986-1987 campaign.
When we last saw them, the Rockets’ latest victim was the Charlotte Hornets, who they dumped in a 118-106 victory on Monday Night. This one was over early, folks, for Houston awarded their faithful at Toyota Center with yet another quick start, leading the affair 38-19 after the First Quarter in route to 71-44 at Halftime. While they didn’t shoot very well, knocking down just 41.8% of their attempts overall, the hosts got hot from beyond the arc, netting 17-of-43 of their shots from downtown (39.5%), and once again taking residence from the Charity Stripe, connecting on 25-of-27 Free-Throws (92.6%), where they outscored the visiting side by Eleven Points. Unsurprisingly, Harden led the way with Twenty-Eight Points despite a poor showing on 7-of-21 shooting from the field (33.3%), including 3-of-9 from the perimeter (33.3%), but made up for from the Stripe knocking down 11-of-12 Freebies (91.7%). He also enjoyed a good deal of support from his teammates, with four other Rockets scoring in double-figures. Paul and Capela accounted for Twenty-Nine Points while the sharpshooting Eric Gordon (16.6 PTS, 40.4% FG, 34.0% 3FG, 2.4 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.4 BLK, 12.1 PER), scored Twenty-Two Points on 7-of-14 shooting (50.0%), including 5-of-12 from three (41.7%). Faried was an animal off the Bench, scoring Sixteen Points on 5-of-10 shooting (50.0%), along with Nine Rebounds, a Steal and a Block in just over Nineteen Minutes of action. At 31-11 since that early season slide, the Rockets are resembling the team that they were a year ago, and with a season sweep of the Warriors can stake their claim as the greatest threat to Golden State’s dynasty once again.