The whole point of this entire Houston Rockets season was for them to have a real chance to beat the Golden State Warriors.
All they wanted was to do everything they could to maximize the slim odds of dethroning the reigning NBA champions. There has never been a team designed so meticulously with another team in mind. The Rockets understood that to win the championship, they would almost certainly have to get past Golden State, and they didn’t see the point in pretending otherwise.
They thought about the Warriors as much as the Warriors. They signed players who would be useful against the Warriors. They played a style that could work against the Warriors. They prioritized the No. 1 seed in the playoffs to give themselves one last edge against the Warriors: a potential Game 7 on their home court. Their season comes down to exactly what they imagined. The Rockets have one more shot to beat the Warriors, and it’s at home in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals on Monday.
That was the obsession required for a great team to hang with one of the greatest teams ever.
It’s worth remembering how unlikely this scenario was at the beginning of this season. The Warriors had created a league of existentialists. They were coming off a 16-1 romp through the last playoffs, and it seemed pointless to construct a team with any hopes of winning a championship as long as Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were playing together.
But the audacity of the Rockets to believe they could build a team that could beat a team that appeared unbeatable is the reason this matchup is so compelling. There is almost nothing that can happen in Game 7 that would change the underlying takeaway of this series: The Golden State Warriors haven’t ruined basketball. The NBA is better because they’re bringing out the best in other teams.
They won a championship in 2015, broke the record for regular-season wins before losing an epic Game 7 of the Finals in 2016 and spooked the league the way they dominated in 2017. But the most enduring parts of this run have been the rare moments when Golden State was actually challenged.
They were down 2-1 to the Memphis Grizzlies in 2015, and they made a brilliant strategic adjustment by defending a point guard with their center. They were down 3-1 to the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016, and they responded with a comeback that fundamentally changed the future of the NBA. They blew a 3-1 lead on the Cleveland Cavaliers in that Finals, and they inspired LeBron James.
That’s where they are in this series. The last three games between the Rockets and Warriors have been packed with all the drama that last year’s playoffs lacked.
Games 4 and 5 were basketball at the very highest level. And then Game 6 happened. With their season on the line, down 3-2 in the series and 17 points after the first quarter, the Warriors somehow won by 29 points in an historic blowout. It was a game with the sort of tension that’s only felt when both teams understand the stakes.
The only reason the Rockets are this good is because the Warriors demanded it. And the only reason the Warriors have to be this good is because the Rockets now demand it.
To beat the Rockets, in other words, the Warriors have to be the team the Rockets were built to beat.
More on Warriors vs. Rockets
- The Rockets Are Beating the Warriors With Defense. Really.
- The Rockets Had to Be Uber-Aggressive to Beat the Warriors
- The Warriors and Rockets Are Not Who You Think
- How the Rockets Chased Value to Challenge the Warriors
- James Harden’s Stepback 3 Is a Step Ahead of the NBA
- It’s the NBA’s Worst Shot. Except for the Warriors.
- The Secret History of the Warriors’ Unstoppable Play
- Why the Warriors Were Behind the NBA’s Chaotic Summer
Write to Ben Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org