These playoffs have been fun and inspiring to this point, but the Houston Rockets are faced with their greatest challenge yet in the Western Conference Finals: the Golden State Warriors.
Just as Rockets fans might be feeling a Game 7 hangover -- I know mine lasted all day yesterday -- the Rockets are in danger of slipping again in a Game 1. The Warriors are fully healthy, full of momentum and have even more rest than Houston. They won 67 games this year, led the league in defensive efficiency, assists, pace and three-point percentage. They are a fully terrifying juggernaut.
At the same time, after the Rockets' Game 4 of the semis, the Warriors were down 2-1 to the Memphis Grizzlies and much of the national conversation was talking about how the Clippers look like the best team left in the playoffs. Things change fast in the playoffs.
We all know that Game 1 is meaningless in the overall scope of the series; a win is a win and still hugely important in a best-of-seven affair, but doesn't eliminate anyone. The Rockets are one of a handful of teams who have won a series after being down 3-1. They can do anything. But beating the Warriors is the hardest thing they've had to do so far.
Propeller Plane vs. Stephen Curry
Curry is a bomb-launching, slick-as-oil point guard and a deserving MVP (Harden was also deserving, don't go crazy). Jason Terry performed so far above expectations defensively against Chris Paul that I'm not even sure what his expectations should be. Paul had a bum hamstring and Curry has sat out like 20 fourth quarters this year. They are different animals. Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer will mostly take this assignment. Terry just has to get some space for his own shots on the other end.
James Harden vs. Klay Thompson
It was kind of jarring watching J.J. Redick effectively defend James Harden for seven games against the Clippers. Thompson has a much stronger reputation as a defender. He's longer, quicker and stronger than Redick, and he frequently is asked to shut down opposing point guards because of it. On offense, Klay is a killer with a quick release and at least a somewhat developed post game. He is also inferior to James Harden, and not by a small amount.
Trevor Ariza vs. Harrison Barnes
It's unlikely we see Ariza guard Barnes, which would make Barnes the potential swing factor in this series. He could have Jason Terry on him, he could see James Harden, or even Josh Smith or Terrence Jones. Or, McHale could just try to go straight up to start and throw us all off. Either way, Ariza figured something out toward the end of the Clippers series and was positively on fire. He was the Rockets' third-best player, and earned that contract.
Josh Smith vs. Draymond Green
J-Smoove had as up-and-down a series as one could against the Clippers, but he was sensational after he was moved into the starting lineup, knocking down threes with confidence and stifling Blake Griffin better than anyone else in the league had to that point. It was a thrilling development. Green is the Swiss Army Knife that makes everything the Warriors do possible. He finished No. 2 in Defensive Player of the Year voting and can handle the rock and pass. He's also the attitude and edge of the Warriors, and will probably try to start a fight at some point.
Dwight Howard vs. Andrew Bogut
Playoff Dwight remains glorious. He's leading the NBA in rebounding during the playoffs and has finally retaken his throne as the pre-eminent lob finisher in the NBA. His darts to the rim off the baseline when Harden and Smith get into the paint are perfectly timed and deadly. Bogut is arguably an even better rim protector and a deft passer. He's largely useless outside of that on offense and may be the guy the Rockets hack intentionally, if McHale sees fit.
Rockets: Terrence Jones, Corey Brewer, Pablo Prigioni, Clint Capela
Warriors: Andre Iguodala, David Lee, Shaun Livingston, Festus Ezeli
Prediction: Warriors 121, Rockets 115