HOUSTON — The Golden State Warriors chose health over wins during the regular season, having seen what the pursuit of 73 wins did to the team two years ago in the NBA Finals. With a rash of injuries — including losing Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry for 14 and 31 regular-season games, respectively — the reigning NBA champions focused not on home-court advantage, but getting to the postseason at full strength.
The Houston Rockets — seemingly obsessed with the Warriors, and admittedly being constructed to beat them, specifically — pick-and-rolled their way to 65 wins on the backs of James Harden and Chris Paul, snagging a No. 1 seed in the West and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Stopping the iso plays that come off that pick and roll is “easier said than done,” Klay Thompson said last week, as is keeping Harden — who has made more foul shots made in his career than field goals — off the foul line. After Sunday’s practice, Thompson said that Golden State has the “appropriate fear” of the Rockets, entering Monday’s Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Hearing that, head coach Steve Kerr — who refused to announce his starting lineup — smiled.
“Greg Popovich is happy to hear that my players are using his term,” he said. “I stole the term from Pop. He used to use it all the time when we’d go on the road with the Spurs. It’s a great term, because you don’t want to be scared when you get on the floor. You want to be confident, but you need the appropriate edge — the appropriate fear — that comes with respecting your opponent, respecting the situation you’re in, because that brings out your best.”
Golden State is 1.5-point underdogs according to Las Vegas sports books, headed into Monday’s series opener. It’s the first time in Kerr’s tenure that the Warriors have started a series on the road, and it’s only the second time that Kerr — in his playoff history as a player and as a coach — has ever started a series on the road. The last time he did was the 1998 NBA Finals, against the Utah Jazz.
“We did lose in overtime,” he said. “I remember we were coming off a seven-game series against Indiana, didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, flew to Utah and lost a close one, then won game two. Then, we won the championship.”
Houston won more games during the regular season (65), had a higher offensive efficiency rating (115.5) than any team that’s faced the Warriors in the playoffs since 2015, but the Warriors are the -135 favorites to win their third NBA title in four years, according to Bovada, with the Rockets at +220 as the next-most likely Finals winner.
“I think we have the right amount of fear and the right amount of confidence,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni. “Obviously, we’re the underdog. They’ve won three of the last four finals they were in. When you go against the champs, you’ve got to knock them out. But, I do like who we are and what we’ve done and where we can go. But, yeah, we’re definitely the underdog.”
After a Jan. 20 win over the Warriors in Houston, Rockets center Clint Capela flatly declared that they were better than the Warriors, having won two of three regular-season games.
Early this week, Kerr said, “Our guys have rings. That’s a good position to be in.”
He also said the Warriors play at their best when they feel threatened.
“I think Houston will bring out our best,” Kerr said on Monday, “because we’ve got a ton of respect for them and what they’ve done all year and how good they are.”
All that said, Kerr did have an answer for technically being the underdog — by one-and-a-half points — in the series opener.
“I’ll take the Warriors, plus one-and-a-half,” Kerr joked. “I read that whole story about gambling this morning, so I guess now I’m allowed to announce my picks for the week. Stay away from Boston tomorrow. Be careful on those Game 2s.”
Kerr feigned catching himself in a compromising position, vis a vis the league’s gambling policy.
“Adam Silver on line two,” he said, eliciting laughs.