Whether or not they can is another matter, but Houston represent the greatest challenger this iteration of the Warriors juggernaut has come across.
It’s as if Rockets general manager Daryl Morey went into a lab, crunched the numbers and came up with a blueprint best suited to pose a legitimate threat to the defending champions.
Beyond the backcourt duo, the Rockets are stocked with shooting and versatile, long defenders to make them a handful on both ends of the court.
They finished with the league’s best record this season at 65-17, but were somehow even better when all three of Harden, Paul and Clint Capela played, boasting a ridiculous mark of 50-5.
Going by efficiency, Warriors-Rockets is the best offensive matchup in modern NBA history.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 9, 2018
Since team turnovers became official in 1973-74, this is the 1st NBA playoff series between teams that both averaged at least 112 points per 100 possessions that regular season. pic.twitter.com/Nh15XlbO36
The Warriors got a taste of what Houston are capable of during the three regular-season meetings – two of which went the Rockets way, including the season-opening statement on the night Golden State received their championship rings.
Off the floor, Houston have been vocal in their desire to knock off the incumbents. Now, they get what they’ve been asking for.
“Obviously, we know what’s ahead of us,” Rockets forward Luc Mbah a Moute said. “That’s the champs. It’s going to be a tough task. You better be ready. But we have what we need. We’ve been that way all season. We’re ready. They have to be ready for us as well. I think we showed all season we match up well with them.”
A narrative has emerged that Houston are also the hungrier team, with Harden and Paul having yet to win a title while several of the Warriors’ key players have two to their name.
Paul, especially, is in search of a championship that has so far eluded him in his 13-year career. This series will mark the first time he’s ever played in the conference finals.
Harden, meanwhile, was next to Durant on the Oklahoma City Thunder the last time he reached the NBA Finals, and is eager to overcome his own playoff shortcomings.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr, however, dismissed that there’s more desire on the Rockets’ side and lauded his team’s winning experience.
“No, I like where we are,” Kerr said. “Our guys have rings. That’s a good position to be in. To me, the hardest championship is the first one, as an individual player and as a team, because you don’t know – you don’t quite know – if you can do it.
“Once you get the first one, there’s a little bit of house money. But you want it again because it’s an unbelievable feeling. I like our position. We’re going to go in here knowing we’re the defending champs, knowing we got a couple of championships here the last few years. Let’s go get another one.”
With the West fielding the two best teams this season, the match-up between the Warriors and Rockets could likely be the most important series of the playoffs.
On one side sits one of the most talented teams in league history, on the verge of being considered a dynasty. On the other, a challenger that has done everything possible to show they’re up to the task of taking the throne.
Can LeBron be slowed down?
Stopping LeBron James is a foolhardy mission. But slowing him down is possible, albeit incredibly difficult.
The Celtics, however, could be better off letting James get his and trying to shut down everyone around him. James is capable of averaging 40 – hell 50 even – for a series, but that may play into Boston’s hands.
Who will guard Tatum?
It’s incredible he’s already being discussed like this considering his age and lack of experience, but Tatum poses a real problem for Clevleand’s defence.
The Philadelphia 76ers had no answer for him and the Cavaliers may be in the same predicament as they’re not exactly flush with wing defenders outside James, who would rather roam as a free safety.
Much of the onus will fall to J.R. Smith, who can be hit-or-miss with his defence. If Smith isn’t at his best, Boston will wield Tatum over and over again.
Will Thompson be a disruptor?
He has a knack for crashing the offensive glass and earning his team extra possessions, while also being a pest against Horford defensively.
The good news for Boston is they have a big body in Aron Baynes this time around to help neutralise Thompson whenever he’s on the court, but it still won’t be an easy task.
Will Love match Horford?
If Love isn’t scoring, there’s not a whole lot else he’s bringing to the table, which isn’t the case with Horford, who’s a playmaker and the quarterback of the defence.
To take the burden off LeBron, Love needs to make Horford work and come close to matching his impact.
Can Korver stay on the floor?
Expect the Celtics to go at Kyle Korver early and often in an attempt to play him off the floor. That’s what Boston did with success against J.J. Redick in the second round, forcing Philadelphia’s hand.
Because everyone in the Celtics’ lineup can score, Korver will have to hold his own in the pick-and-roll and in post-ups situations.
He’s been extremely important for Cleveland’s offence so Boston will do everything they can to render him unplayable.
Boston are more balanced, better coached and the deeper team, but Cleveland have LeBron.The Celtics are too tough and cohesive to go down easy, but the king stays the king.
Cavaliers in 7
The Eastern Conference Finals will once again be decided by the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, but as likely as the match-up looked coming into the season, reaching this point has been anything but predictable.
As recently as the first round of the playoffs, both sides looked in trouble of advancing, let alone getting this far.
Their paths now intertwine again, one year after clashing in the conference finals, with this being the third meeting in the past four postseasons.
It could have been expected back in October, after the Celtics’ bolstered their roster with the additions of Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, whose departure from Cleveland left a sizeable hole next to LeBron James.
But five minutes into the season, Hayward was lost to a gruesome leg injury, and five months later, so was Irving to sap Boston’s firepower.
The trio, along with steady forces Al Horford and Marcus Smart – all utilised by the coaching of Brad Stevens – have propelled Boston past all expectations and given them a shot to inexplicably reach the Finals in what was assumed to be a lost season.
“After Gordon, Kyrie, Marcus and [Daniel] Theis went down, no one expected us to go to the Eastern Conference finals,” Tatum said after the Celtics closed out Philadelphia in Game 5. “We just continue to prove people wrong and have fun while we’re doing it.”
The Cavaliers’ journey hasn’t been nearly as improbable because LeBron James has remained the one constant, but they’ve undergone significant changes throughout the season as well.
Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder were traded for Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance and Rodney Hood, but the latter three have gone from being necessary to Cleveland’s contention hopes, to role players giving way to the Cavaliers’ most veteran players.
“There’s been a lot that’s happened throughout the season with us and for [Boston],” forward Kevin Love said.
“Both teams have raised their level of play and been through it, but are here now and have to lay it all on the line.”
James’ presence alone gives Cleveland a massive advantage.
The superstar is vying for an eighth straight Finals appearance during a streak which has seen him win 23 consecutive Eastern Conference playoff series.
Boston were the last East team to knock him off, but that was back in 2010 when the likes of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were the Celtics’ backbone.
So while the Celtics have youth, athleticism, coaching and even home-court working in their favour, James is more than capable of mitigating all of that.
“LeBron’s on just a ridiculous run of play,” Stevens said. “We know that it’ll be quite a challenge.”