Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) steals the ball from Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on October 17, 2017. (Stan Olszewski/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Bernstein: James Harden is living rent-free in the Warriors’ heads — and that’s good for Golden State

With about six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of a back-and-forth matchup with the Kings this past Saturday, Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry was called for a travel on a step-back three. After the whistle, Curry mimed Houston guard James Harden’s jersey number 13 to an official, implying the violation would not have been flagged if Curry had a thick beard and wore red.

To repeat: Deep in the fourth quarter of a close game in Sacramento, Curry’s attention wandered to someone at the time playing almost 600 miles away in Portland.

It was a lighthearted gesture, of course, but it was also a rare display. Curry doesn’t usually reference rivals he isn’t playing against. His doing so perhaps offered a glimpse into the psyche of the team Harden embarrassed on Jan. 4 by capping a 44-point triple-double with a game-winning overtime shot in the faces of Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.

The Warriors seem particularly sour about Harden’s brazen foul-drawing techniques and his capitalizing on the grey area between what is and is not a travel in the NBA.

“I’ve seen [Harden’s step-back] once or twice and tried it myself and obviously [the referees] got confused,” Curry said after the Kings game. “They knew it was somebody different so they called it.”

Green, along with several of his teammates, specifically decried a foul call that sent Harden to the line with 33 seconds left in overtime.

In any case, Harden’s national TV dominance against the Warriors while sidekicks Chris Paul and Eric Gordon were sidelined gave him a moment worthy of the MVP award he’s lobbied for in recent weeks. And in the aftermath of his game-winner, he seemed to revel in his besting of Golden State, snarling at Green, who lay helpless on the hardwood, before appearing to shout “two-time MVP” as his Rockets teammates celebrated around him.

As deflating as that moment might have been for Warriors fans, perhaps it will help the team in the long run.

After all, the lethargic Warriors probably needed a dose of disrespect, someone to come into their house and look superhuman as they appeared increasingly mortal. In Harden and the surging Rockets, there’s a common enemy to potentially help bring them back together.

Before losing to Houston, Golden State’s disappointing regular season was brought on almost exclusively by internal turmoil. Kevin Durant and Draymond Green fought on the court and in the locker room, Klay Thompson couldn’t hit shots he usually makes and the team’s late-game execution was dismal. Even a Christmas Day defeat to the Lakers was self-inflicted, Los Angeles able to pull away late without LeBron James as the Warriors struggled to find offensive rhythm against a porous opponent.

The dynamic was different against Houston, though, as Golden State built a 20-point second-half lead and appeared ready to claim a blowout victory. Harden’s solo brilliance turned the tide, the guard nailing 7-of-14 shots from deep after halftime despite a solid defensive effort against him on the perimeter. While the Warriors struggled to execute in end-of-game sets once their lead evaporated, the lasting image was Harden’s taunting, not their own squabbling.

“They’re a great team,” Green said afterward. “Once they find a rhythm, it’s hard to break it.”

Unlocking Houston, which is now 2-0 against the Warriors this year, will be one of the key side missions of the season’s second-half. Golden State faces the Rockets again on Feb. 23 and March 13, and a fourth playoff clash in five years could follow.

But will the clear disdain for Harden and the Rockets be enough for coach Steve Kerr’s squad to start playing cohesive basketball again? To that end, can anything outside of the postseason fully ignite the Warriors’ spirit?

It’s still unclear, and Golden State’s defense was often lackadaisical against the Kings in its 127-123 win Saturday. It is apparent, though, that the Warriors take their matchup with Harden personally. Even their compliments of him come with an edge.

“He’s very unique. There’s certain players who change the game,” Kerr said. “I thought Allen Iverson changed the game, changed the way players dribbled … Harden is one of those guys. He’s changed the way people draw fouls, and he’s gotten really good at it.”

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