Shooting Rockets at the throne: on the eve of Houston’s most important game of the season Does Houston want to have a problem — or do they want to be the problem?
There’s a Jay-Z lyric for any and every situation in life. For the Houston Rockets, their current 2-1 Western Conference finals plight is no different. More on that shortly. After elimination by the Golden State Warriors in 2015 and 2016, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey all but confirmed the Bay Area fetish. “It’s the only thing we think about,” he told ESPN last December. “I think I’m not supposed to say that, but we’re obsessed with ‘How do we beat the Warriors?’ ”
He went on to say, “It’s like 90 percent … if we’re gonna win a title, we’ve obviously gotta beat the Warriors at some point. So we’re extremely focused on that. A lot of our signings and what we do during the year is based on that.”
This year’s Houston Rockets are an all-time great offensive juggernaut. The franchise broke its own record for 3-pointers made in a season this year. But here’s the thing — beating the defending champions in regular-season matchups, as they did two out of three times, is a completely different animal from trying to beat them four times in less than two weeks.
As currently constructed, the Warriors represent the love child of the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams and 2001 Miami Hurricanes — only the child decided CTE, the lack of guaranteed contracts and football’s stance on social issues were too much to ignore. Golden State is the most overwhelmingly dominant team ever assembled, with four presumptive future Hall of Fame candidates all still very much at their physical apexes. And Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant could very well end up as top-10 players of all time.
Now Houston has to beat that same team at home. That same team that hasn’t lost in Oakland since LeBron James’ block and Kyrie Irving’s shot punctuated the greatest Finals comeback in NBA history nearly two years ago. A loss that, by the Warriors’ own admission, delivered them Durant. Oracle Arena hasn’t felt the agony of playoff defeat in 703 days and counting. That’s 16 games in a row — the longest such streak in league history. This is the task sitting on Houston’s shoulders ahead of tonight’s game.
Do not bark up that tree, Jay-Z warned his foes on the seminal 2001 diss record “Takeover.” That tree will fall on you / I don’t know why your advisers ain’t forewarn you. The best record in the league, with a team specifically designed for this exact moment, only to sit on the edge of self-destruction. That lyric will haunt the Rockets if they lose tonight.
Head coach Mike D’Antoni called his team soft after Sunday’s baptism. D’Antoni understands the magnitude, even if he is saying Golden State has “all the pressure” of tonight’s game. D’Antoni is the forefather of the space-and-pace offense: His mid-2000s Phoenix Suns were the kings of it. Now he’s a mad scientist watching his creation turn against him, as the Warriors are a faster, defensively superior and just more crippling version of those Suns. Chris Paul waited his entire career to advance to the NBA’s final four, and it’ll likely end in five if the Rockets put on a repeat performance of their Game 3 curb-stomping.
James Harden, the leading MVP candidate (although another James continues to make a case), has had his great season come down to one game. These moments define careers. Big-time players, as Santana Moss once poetically put it, make big-time plays in big-time games. And if Harden wants to continue to live under the label of “superstar” without reproach, this is the type of game that notarizes the stamp. Game 4 on the road? In an all-time hostile environment? With a chance to completely rewrite the narrative of both the series and your postseason career? These are dreams that money, not even Harden’s mammoth contract, can’t buy.
Houston called out Golden State like Martin called out Tommy Hearns in the classic 1994 Martin episode “Guard Your Grill.” And, as it stands right now, the Rockets are a two piece and another Steph Curry biscuit away from looking like Martin after the fight. It’s the “s— or get off the pot” moment for these Houston Rockets. Go back to Houston tied 2-2 and it’s a best-of-three series with potentially two games at home — and the reality that they don’t have to win in Golden State again. Go back to Houston down 3-1 and not even the courtside five of Beyoncé, Bun B, Scarface, Travis Scott and Deshaun Watson would prevent the inevitable. Does Houston want to have a problem or does Houston want to be the problem? Do not bark up that tree. It won’t take long to find out either way.