For most of the year, the Houston Rockets were seen as a fun upstart with the best chance to upset the Golden State Warriors. False “they don’t play defense” or “James Harden and Chris Paul can’t play together” narratives aside, that’s still true. Houston right now looks like the team with the best chance to beat the Warriors four times in seven games, even if the Dubs would still be favored.
On the whole, that’s made Houston a bit of a people’s champion. Sure, everyone is going to root for their team first. But the next logical step for most fanbases after their team is eliminated has become “anyone but the Warriors.” I know that’s how I’ve felt for the last couple of seasons. I’m not a Cavs fan in any way, shape, or form. I’ve never been to Cleveland. But two years ago, that was about the happiest I’ve been seeing a non-Rockets team win the Finals since 2004, when the Pistons won the title during the “anyone but the Lakers” era.
That’s been the prevailing thought I’ve seen from fans on Twitter, Reddit, or on SB Nation sites. Yes, everyone still hates Harden because all he does is flop. They hate Chris Paul because all he does is complain and flop. They think Mike D’Antoni teams can’t win big games. They think the Rockets can’t play defense. They think Daryl Morey has ruined basketball. Whatever the case may be, they still understand that the ultimate goal is taking down the superteam in Oakland. They’re all working toward a common end. Plus, the Rockets have been so good that they’re earning respect around the league, even if it is given begrudgingly. So there’s a temporary truce between NBA fans and the Rockets, and it’s simple: “We still don’t like you, but you are the better alternative.”
That truce is breaking.
Mostly, it’s because a bunch of the fanbases supporting the Rockets as a backup are seeing their teams need to beat the Rockets to maintain playoff positioning. However, the Rockets aren’t cooperating. In New Orleans, fans felt aggrieved on a foul that gave Harden three free throws. They booed every time he touched the ball down the stretch. Alvin Gentry had some comments, and the NBA fanbase (admittedly a fickle bunch) jumped back on the “Harden gets all these calls” soap box for a day. In Minnesota, Gerald Green shoved Gorgui Dieng and Timberwolves fans got absolutely more into the game. They chanted, yelled, and basically helped the Wolves surge back into the game. The same intensity that the Clippers have when they face the Rockets is being exhibited by teams that don’t have bad blood with Houston.
Again, no one is going to root for the Rockets over their team. Nor should they. But I know that even as a Rockets fan, if the Rockets get knocked out of the playoffs before the Finals, I’ll be rooting for “anyone besides Golden State.”
That brings us to tonight, where the red-hot Portland Trail Blazers have won their last 13 games. They have solidified their position as the 3 seed in the Western Conference as the Rockets have helped knock off every one of their challengers at least once. This is true: since these teams last met on January 10, the Rockets have beaten every single team in the 3-10 hunt in the West besides the Blazers. Truly, since January 10 Houston has beaten:
- OKC once
- San Antonio twice
- Utah once
- New Orleans once
- Minnesota four (!!!!) times
- LA Clips twice
- Denver twice
The only losses to any of those teams were the Clippers locker room game and the Pelicans game where New Orleans played one heck of a game that cost them DeMarcus Cousins.
So, yeah the Blazers are coming in ready to go. They are still pissed about the Chris Paul layup despite the fact that they were still defending the inbounds pass and therefore CP3 did nothing wrong. It’s fine, whatever. They can be upset. I’m sure they would love if they blew the Rockets out and Damian Lillard made an uncontested layup with 0.9 left on the clock then did that stupid wrist-slap thing he does. Seriously, the entire Rose Garden would need a change of pants.
Or maybe the Blazers just beat the Rockets without any theatrics. They’re really good, and peaking right now. This is a red-hot team that has taken care of all comers. Remember, they’ve beaten the Warriors twice during that stretch, including getting a “Warriors win confidence bump” to get the streak started. They haven’t played a close game in over two weeks. Jusuf Nurkic is still capable of putting up big numbers. Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless are hitting their threes. Shabazz Napier has quietly put together a nice season. Evan Turner is having some of the best shooting numbers of his career. And Zach Collins (a personal favorite) has emerged as a dangerous big off the bench that can stretch the floor.
Everything is clicking for the Blazers, and this is a big one for them. It’s on national television. It’s against the team with the best record in the NBA. It’s a chance to get some vengeance for a perceived slight. It’s yet one more opportunity to Lillard to prove that he’s an elite player, even though no one should really be arguing that at this point.
Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising if the Blazers win this game. In fact, it kind of feels expected. The Rockets have had to use up some fuel to put away the Clippers, Pelicans, and Wolves over the last week. MDA is still tinkering with lineups now that Ryan Anderson is back. Harden and Clint Capela each hurt a hand during the Wolves game. But this game doesn’t really matter. At this point, only one thing matters.
Anyone but the Warriors.
Tip-off is at 9:30pm CT on TNT. The game will also broadcast on AT&T Southwest for those who dislike the TNT crew. Thank goodness.