Rock­ets pose threat to War­riors’ dy­nasty

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NBA - Sam Amick and Michael Singer

Could Golden State’s run be over, or will it sim­ply be put on pause?

The Rock­ets pose the big­gest threat in years to the War­riors’ dy­nasty; there could be a new Fi­nals rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the Western Con­fer­ence.

There will also be con­se­quences as a re­sult of post­sea­son per­for­mances, and not all of the im­pact will be felt this year. Teams such as Ok­la­homa City and New Or­leans must have strong show­ings as a way to ap­peal to stars this sum­mer and be­yond.

Here are the top story lines head­ing into the Western Con­fer­ence play­offs.

1. Will James Harden, Chris Paul and the Rock­ets beat play­off demons? You know the sto­ries that haunt the Rock­ets by now: Paul is widely con­sid­ered one of the great­est point guards of all time, yet the nine­time All-Star hasn’t been able to reach the con­fer­ence fi­nals in nine post­sea­son tries. Harden is com­ing off the kind of play­off col­lapse in 2017 that tainted his oth­er­wise-spec­tac­u­lar sea­son. He faded late in a Game 5 over­time loss to San An­to­nio in the sec­ond round only to dis­ap­pear al­most com­pletely in the se­ries-end­ing Game 6 loss to the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs. This is their first time tak­ing on the play­off challenge to­gether, and their time for re­demp­tion is now. What’s more, Mike D’An­toni is in pur­suit of his first ti­tle and would be the old­est coach, at 66, to win a cham­pi­onship.

2. Will the War­riors wilt? Golden State’s would-be dy­nasty is en­ter­ing fas­ci­nat­ing ter­ri­tory, as a failed at­tempt at de­fend­ing its ti­tle could in­spire in­tro­spec­tion as its San Fran­cisco fu­ture nears (arena opens in 201920). While Stephen Curry is signed on his $201 mil­lion max deal through 2022 and Kevin Du­rant is ex­pected to sign a deal this sum­mer, Klay Thomp­son is a free agent in 2019 and Dray­mond Green in 2020. There are ex­ten­sion pos­si­bil­i­ties for both All-Stars be­fore then and a po­ten­tially un­com­fort­able con­nec­tion be­tween those re­spec­tive ne­go­ti­a­tions. If the War­riors fall flat — and likely be­ing with­out Curry (strained MCL) for the first round doesn’t help — owner Joe La­cob and gen­eral man­ager Bob My­ers might have re-eval­u­at­ing to do.

3. Can Port­land keep its mo­men­tum? Since Jan. 1, the Blaz­ers have more wins (30) than the War­riors, Thun­der and Cavs while Damian Lil­lard has en­tered the MVP con­ver­sa­tion and C.J. McCol­lum has been more star than side­kick. Port­land has been in this same or­bit for years, among the Western Con­fer­ence’s best yet not nearly as dan­ger­ous as Golden State or, this year, Hous­ton. They’ll ben­e­fit from home-court ad­van­tage and, un­like last year, won’t have to see the War­riors in the first round. Get­ting more from Jusuf Nur­kic, a piv­otal ad­di­tion last year, could make them a con­fer­ence fi­nal­ist, and they’d ben­e­fit from the re­turn of Moe Hark­less, who could re­turn soon after knee surgery.

4. Will Thun­der ap­peal to Ge­orge? The Thun­der might have the most at stake this post­sea­son, and it’s not de­pen­dent how on far they go. The Thun­der bet big on last sum­mer’s Paul Ge­orge deal, hop­ing that sur­round­ing him with reign­ing MVP Rus­sell West­brook, fu­ture Hall of Famer Carmelo An­thony and blos­som­ing big man Steven Adams would be enough to en­tice him to stay in free agency. If you parse his words, it seems like the Thun­der have made a fa­vor­able im­pres­sion given that Ge­orge has re­cently talked about re­cruit­ing oth­ers this off­sea­son. It’s not cham­pi­onship or bust, as he’s said, but there is def­i­nitely pres­sure to sur­vive the first round.

5. What does Play­off Davis look like? An­thony Davis has been to the post­sea­son one time since he was drafted in 2012. A two-year post­sea­son ab­sence has done noth­ing but stir up con­jec­ture that he’ll even­tu­ally look for greener pas­tures when he be­comes a free agent in 2021. In the here and now, the Pel­i­cans have to ap­peal to freeagent-to-be DeMar­cus Cousins, who rup­tured his Achilles in Jan­uary, of­fi­cially putting the bur­den on mak­ing the post­sea­son on Davis. Since the in­jury, Davis has led the NBA in scor­ing (30.1), is sixth in re­bounds (12.0) and is first in blocks (3.1). Now that the Pel­i­cans have made the play­offs, they must prove if they have any stay­ing power.

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