The buildup for this series truly began in February, with some pointed comments from Golden State’s Draymond Green.
Or in October, when Houston won at Golden State on ring night.
Or in June, when the Rockets landed Chris Paul.
Whenever it started, however it started, it’s clear that this is the series that the NBA-watching world wanted. Western Conference finals, Golden State versus Houston, Game 1 on Monday on the Rockets’ home floor. Series winner to the NBA Finals, series loser will undoubtedly feel like they let a championship ring slip away.
“They got us. We got them,” Green said. “Got to go out there and play. We’ll see who better.”
After more than 10 months of playing, posturing and some pontificating, it really is that simple.
This Rockets team was assembled - the key being the trade for Paul last summer - with hopes of unseating the reigning champion Warriors from their perch atop the NBA. So far, so good. Houston set a franchise record with 65 wins in the regular season, went 2-1 against the Warriors in games that were hyped at the time though seem meaningless now, and has the likely MVP in James Harden.
But how this Houston season will be remembered hinges largely on the outcome of this series.
“Everybody at the beginning of the year thinks they’ve got a chance to be here,” Houston’s P.J. Tucker said. “Everybody talks about winning. Everybody talks about fighting for a championship. … We really believed it. We’re really fighting to get there. This is not a game. Everybody takes their job serious.”
He’s right on all counts, particularly on the talking.
And the talking will most definitely continue over the next few days. With five full off days between the Warriors’ and Rockets’ respective second-round clinchers on Tuesday and Game 1 of their series, a lot of people will be saying a lot of somethings.
“I think it’s going to be a great series,” said New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry, whose Pelicans fell in five games to the Warriors in the West semifinals. “I think it will be very entertaining. I think the people will have a great time watching that series, because you have great players out there. … I’m looking forward to it.”
He’s hardly alone.
For as great as LeBron James has been, again, the West matchup is going to overshadow the East finals between Cleveland and either Boston or Philadelphia. That’s no disrespect to the East; that’s just reality given the seasons that the Warriors and Rockets have had, and the collision course that seemed so inevitable for either to avoid.
“The whole world’s been waiting for this matchup,” Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal said in his role as an analyst Tuesday night on TNT.
The three Warriors-Rockets games were about as anticipated as any in the regular season: Golden State lost two of the three, and the final combined score of those matchups was Warriors 353, Rockets 352.
“That was so long ago,” Warriors forward Kevin Durant said. “I think both teams are different and playing better. So you know, I try not to look at those games but we kind of know, they know what we do and they know what we do.”
It’s the second time in four years that Houston and Golden State have met in the West finals; the Warriors ousted the Rockets in five games in 2015 on their way to the NBA title. Golden State was the No. 1 seed that year, Houston was No. 2. The seeds are flipped this time, after Houston finished the regular season with the league’s best record.
This is the first time since 2014 - a span of 15 series - where Golden State will have to play Game 1 on the road.
“Every series you play, it gets harder and harder and harder,” said Warriors guard Stephen Curry, who is seeking a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals and third ring in four years. “So following that trend for sure.”
The verbal jousts between the Warriors and Rockets go back to the preseason, with Green questioning Houston’s commitment to defense. And after Houston beat Golden State 122-121 on opening night of the season, that prompted Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni to turn that phrase back around on Green.
It picked up in January, when the teams split a pair of games. And in February, Green told Sports Illustrated that he knew the Rockets were focused on knocking the Warriors off.
“Noted. Great. We’ll see y’all soon,” Green said then.
Soon, now, has a definitive date. Soon is Monday.
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