Rockets pose threat to Warriors’ dynasty
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.