As the Warriors completed their last East Coast road trip of the season, the talk around the team was all about a rival in the West.
The Rockets have made sure they’re a topic of conversation this season. While Golden State allowed for some early season slippage (due to disinterest, supreme confidence or both), Houston has made a genuine push for the top seed.
Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey has consistently delivered barbs to ensure the brewing NBA Cold War doesn’t get boring. Last week, he revealed that James Harden and Chris Paul believe they’ll beat the Warriors.
Golden State players and coaches responded by putting Houston in the little-brother role. Stephen Curry said he remembers when his team was hungry for its first title and taking the regular season a little too seriously.
“What are they supposed to say? If I was in the same shit, I’d say the same thing,” Curry said Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
“We were probably saying the same thing four years ago when we were chasing our first championship,” he added. “I would either think they’re lying or be seriously concerned if they were saying anything different than what is being rumored they’re saying, [with] their confidence and all that.”
Draymond Green pointed out that there is too much time between now and the Western Conference Finals to have these conversations in earnest.
“Maybe we do end up playing the Rockets, and, you know, I like our chances no matter who we play,” Green said to Sports Illustrated. “But we do know that they’re a threat. They’ve added some great pieces, and as it’s been highly publicized, that team is built to beat us.
“Noted. Great. We’ll see y’all soon.”
Do the Rockets present a test different than what the Warriors have faced in the last three years?
“They are definitely a challenge,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “There are plenty of challenges out there.”
Houston Rockets: The most common argument used against them is the past postseason failings of Harden and Chris Paul. That’s a fallacy, even if it is hard to ignore. Houston won the season series, 2-1, and could claim homecourt advantage if they can come close to winning out — which the Warriors will do, considering their soft end-of-season schedule.
But those two wins came at a time when the Dubs were admittedly not sharp on the defensive end. There’s nothing stopping the defending champs from going on a huge winning streak to end the season and building the momentum that allowed them to finish the 2017 campaign 31-2.
How Vegas sees it: As of Friday, Golden State is -288 to win the West; Houston is +345.
Oklahoma City Thunder: They won’t beat the Warriors but could be a difficult second-round opponent that makes life harder in subsequent matchups. Paul George is a great perimeter defender who has given the Splash Brothers issues and exacerbates Golden State’s tendencies to turn the ball over. Can Russell Westbrook get out of his own way and play effective team basketball? Probably not, but he’s talented enough to make life hard.
How Vegas sees it: +2600
San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard is reportedly returning this month, and Gregg Popovich should never be discounted. It’s possible, if not probable, the Spurs steal a game or two against the Warriors.
If San Antonio is able to knock off Houston ahead of the Western Conference Finals, it would make for a boring playoffs, narrative-wise. And nobody brings the boring better than the Spurs.
How Vegas sees it: +2200
New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis’ MVP-level play could make it harder for the Warriors to sign him away in a couple seasons. Walking away from the only franchise you’ve known is harder when you’ve experienced playoff success with it.
How Vegas sees it: +12500
Minnesota Timberwolves: If Jimmy Butler isn’t back by the playoffs, this will be quick work. If he is back, it’ll still be quick work.
How Vegas sees it: +6000
Portland Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic hasn’t provided as much of a boost in the paint as Portland hoped when they traded for him last season. He makes the team better, but not good enough to seriously compete with the Warriors. The Blazers aren’t as far away as many would think, but Evan Turner’s contract will go down in history as the reason they don’t get over the hump. If General Manager Neil Olshey had instead used some of that money to keep Will Barton, things might be different.
How Vegas sees it: +11000
BOTTOM OF THE BARREL
I’d be remiss to not mention the bottom of the standings. This season has one of the most intense races to the bottom in league history. Four teams are jockeying for the worst record in the West.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was hit with a $600,000 fine for discussing the fact that his team isn’t competing to win games. That led to commissioner Adam Silver issuing a memo that any officials who acknowledge the reality that NBA rules encourage bad teams to tank will not be tolerated.
But what are they supposed to say?
“What do you say if your wife says, ‘Do I look fat in this outfit?’” Kerr joked at practice Thursday. “‘You look wonderful, honey. That dress, the color is perfect. Have I told you how much I love you lately? You’re the best, sweetheart.’ Am I in trouble right now?”
Contact Examiner Sports Editor Jacob C. Palmer at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @jacobc_palmer.