As the Cleveland Cavaliers continue to spiral downwards, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Golden State Warriors’ biggest challenger this season likely resides in Houston.
And based on how the teams have fared against each other, the Rockets have proven they’re up to the task of taking down the NBA’s giants if they end up meeting in the playoffs.
In the third and final regular-season clash between the Western Conference rivals, Houston looked impressive in handing the Warriors a 116-108 defeat on Saturday to snap the defending champions’ 14-game road winning streak.
James Harden hit a clutch step-back 3-pointer over Stephen Curry with more than a minute remaining before blocking Curry’s long-range attempt on the next possession, while Chris Paul finished with 33 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in the Rockets’ best victory of the season.
The win had Houston players feeling themselves and no one more so than centre Clint Capela, who claimed his side are better than Golden State.
“We’re confident because we know if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to beat them,” Capela told ESPN.
“We are better than them.”
While Capela’s words may seem nothing more than boastful, there is a semblance of truth to his bold statement.
The Warriors are coming off a title and, even after their most recent loss, have the best record in the league at 37-10, but when they’ve gone head-to-head with Houston, the Rockets have looked like a legitimate threat.
Houston have claimed two of the three regular-season meetings, with their lone lose coming in a game that didn’t feature Harden or Kevin Durant as the two stars sat out with injuries.
With both Harden and Paul on the court, the Rockets won the two games against full-strength Warriors teams.
What’s more, when Harden, Paul and Capela have all been healthy and in the lineup, Houston are a perfect 17-0.
A deeper look at the head-to-head stats in the Rockets’ wins over Golden State reveals these aren’t exactly aberration victories.
The Warriors actually outshot Houston in those two games, connecting on 51.2 per cent of their field goals and 50.0 per cent of their 3-pointers, compared to 47.8 and 37.2, respectively, for the Rockets.
It’s not as if Golden State have suffered from dry spells as one of their major strengths has let them down. And it’s not like Houston are hitting everything they throw up.
Instead, the difference between the teams has been on the margins.
The Rockets have capitalised on the Warriors’ propensity to be loose with the ball and force careless passes, leading to quick scores on the other end. Houston like to play fast anyways, but by attacking Golden State before they get a chance to set their half-court defence, the Rockets have picked up easy points.
Then there’s the rebounding edge, which Houston held by an average of 44.5 to 32.0 in the wins. That’s a trend that should be here to stay with the Rockets having the best defensive rebounding efficiency in the league at 81.5 per cent, while the Warriors rank 26th at 76.2 per cent.
And while Golden State’s sheer talent can’t be matched, Houston have multiple stars in Harden and Paul, along with players like Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Ryan Anderson, Gerald Green and Nene who add depth and form a supporting cast that could very well make this a dogfight of a series in the Western Conference Finals.
There’s a chance we’ll actually get a somewhat competitive and compelling All-Star Game this season.
Whether we do or not – the past two editions have seen the Western Conference score nearly 200 points each time and win comfortably – is largely up to the players and specifically the captains.
LeBron James and Stephen Curry will be the two captains responsible for picking their teams after leading their respective conferences in voting.
The NBA also announced the All-Star starters on Thursday, determined by a combination of fan, player and media voting.
With the league implementing a new format, this is how the teams will be constructed: James and Curry will pick one after another from the pool of eight starters and 14 reserves – chosen by NBA head coaches and revealed on January 23 – until all players have been selected, regardless of conference.
Because LeBron was the overall vote leader, he’ll get the first pick before Curry.
While results of the draft and team rosters will be revealed in a one-hour special of TNT NBA Tip-Off on January 25, the actual draft won’t be televised.
As a quick aside, it’s a shame the league decided to not air the draft, which would be must-see TV as LeBron and Curry pick between their peers and in the process reveal how they feel about certain players.
Alas, we won’t get that. But what we could still get are rosters that group adversaries together or against each other, resulting in some popcorn-worthy situations.
Would it be more fun to see LeBron and Kyrie Irving together again, or on opposite sides? The caveat is that LeBron will have a say in which scenario plays out.
The same goes with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook – who’s not a starter but will definitely be named a reserve.
Just for fun, let’s do a mock draft for LeBron and Curry and try to pick the most fun and narrative-driven teams. We don’t know who the reserves are yet, so let’s just stick to the starters.
With the first pick, LeBron selects… Kevin Durant. After watching the Warriors add the former MVP to cripple his chances of winning another title, don’t you think LeBron wants to break that core up, even if it is for one exhibition game? Plus, Durant is the best player on the board, making it an easy decision.
With the second pick, Curry takes Giannis Antetokounmpo. Few players are more entertaining or awe-inspiring than the ‘Greek Freak’ and Curry will have a ball tossing him alley-oops. And Curry needs Giannis to guard one of LeBron or Durant.
Now we’re within Kyrie range for LeBron. He’s not necessarily the best player left, but he’s perfect for the All-Star Game environment. But all LeBron needs is any excuse to pass on him and with Anthony Davis still available, he’ll opt for one of the two New Orleans Pelicans stars. That way, LeBron gets a big so he doesn’t have to protect the paint, while also assuring he has the ball in his hands more.
Curry has a tough decision between Irving and James Harden now, right? Wrong. Curry and Harden are rivals – team-wise and individually in MVP races – who’ve had a bit of a spicy relationship, while Irving offers Steph the opportunity to stick it to LeBron. This is a good pick to get petty.
That leaves LeBron with Harden, while Curry finally adds some needed size with Joel Embiid – yes, over Cousins, who’s not exactly a first-choice team-mate.
LeBron, being the basketball mind he is, will take DeMar DeRozan to have more of a versatile small-ball lineup, leaving Curry with Cousins anyways.
This draft is not only ideal from a fan standpoint, it’s also incredibly realistic.
And if the players decide to try, we could end up with one of the better All-Star Games in recent memory.
Klay Thompson scored 38 points and Stephen Curry added 30 to spark defending NBA champion Golden State over Chicago 119-112 Wednesday, giving the Warriors a club record-matching 14th consecutive road victory.
Thompson and Curry, nicknamed “The Splash Brothers,” overwhelmed from 3-point range, with Thompson sinking seven 3-pointers and Curry adding six, while Kevin Durant had 19 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
“Every night we come out it’s a different guy,” Thompson said.
The Warriors outscored Chicago 32-12 in the third quarter to pull away, the Bulls being led by reserve Nikola Mirotic’s 24 points.
Golden State improved to a league-best 37-9 and moved two road wins shy of matching the all-time NBA record away win streak of 16 games, set by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1971-72 season as part of their overall record 33-game win streak.
“It’s not about records,” Durant said. “We just want to play good every day. We want to keep getting better, build better habits.”
The Warriors could set a club record with a 15th consecutive road victory on Saturday at Houston, could match the NBA road win streak record of 16 games on January 30 at Utah and possibly break that mark on February 2 at Sacramento.
“Winning on the road is great,” Curry said. “You see opposing arenas empty out pretty quick.”
But not all the news from Chicago was good for the Warriors. Rookie Jordan Bell was taken off in a wheelchair with what was later diagnosed as a sprained left ankle. X-rays were negative from more severe damage but a full diagnosis will not be made until an MRI exam Thursday.
Chicago’s Kris Dunn, averaging 13.6 points a game, chipped and dislocated two teeth with a face-first fall late in the fourth quarter. He was to undergo further evaluation Thursday.
KIWI COMES UP BIG FOR OKC
Carmelo Anthony scored 27 points while New Zealand center Steven Adams added 21 points on 10-of-12 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds to lead the Oklahoma City Thunder over the visiting Los Angeles Lakers 114-90.
Russell Westbook added 19 points, six rebounds and seven assists for the Thunder, who improved to 25-20.
“We need to just stay disciplined. That’s what makes us win games,” Adams said. “We’ve got to focus on what gets us in that spot in the first place.”
Adams, a 24-year-old 7-footer, says he has found the best way to support superstars Westbrook, Anthony and Paul George, who had 13 points, is to simply play his own game inside.
“It’s just finding ways you can help out the team,” Adams said. “You don’t have to be a stat guy. It will come back to you. These guys are great. The more you help them the more it comes back to you.”
— NBA (@NBA) January 18, 2018
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had 21 points to lead seven double-figure scorers while Dwight Howard had 18 points and 15 rebounds in Charlotte’s 133-109 home win over Washington.
SPURS AVOID ‘DEEP KIMCHI’
LaMarcus Aldridge scored 34 points to power the San Antonio Spurs over host Brooklyn 100-95.
Australia’s Patty Mills had 25 points on 7-of-10 3-point shooting and Spaniard Pau Gasol had 13 points and 12 rebounds for the Spurs, who are without Kawhi Leonard indefinitely due to a quadriceps injury.
“LA (Aldridge) is the reason we have kept such a good record with Kawhi and Tony (Parker) out,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “We’d be in deep kimchi if he weren’t playing the way he is.”
Kent Bazemore’s jumper with 3.6 seconds remaining, the last of his team-high 20 points, gave Atlanta a 94-93 victory over visiting New Orleans.
Delon Wright sank two clinching free throws with 5.9 seconds remaining to lift Toronto over Detroit 96-91.
Hassan Whiteside’s 27 points and 13 rebounds led Miami over host Milwaukee 106-101 while Memphis downed New York 105-99 behind 23 points and 10 assists from Tyreke Evans.
Blake Griffin had 20 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Los Angeles Clippers over visiting Denver 109-104 and Donovan Mitchell scored 34 points to lead Utah over host Sacramento 120-105.
— NBA (@NBA) January 18, 2018