James Harden on slowing down Warriors: 'Easier said than done'
Some may forget, but the Houston Rockets were picked by a lot of pundits as the Golden State Warriors' biggest challenger in the West this season.
After making the Western Conference Finals last season, losing to the Warriors in five games, Houston reloaded with Ty Lawson, and was getting starting point guard Patrick Beverley -- who missed the postseason -- back from injury. Things were looking up for the Rockets. On paper, they looked like they could win 60 games, contend for the No. 1 or 2 seed, and push the Warriors and/or San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs.
And then the season started. The Rockets struggled out of the gates, Kevin McHale was fired, Lawson underachieved (to say the least), and locker-room discord reports and rumors have been rampant. At 25-25, the Rockets are currently the No. 7 seed -- meaning they'd face the Spurs in the first round -- and aren't guaranteed a playoff berth (though it's likely).
Meanwhile, the Warriors are 44-4 and look primed to defend their championship. The Spurs (39-8) are playing historic basketball. The Oklahoma City Thunder have reentered the contender mix. And the Los Angeles Clippers, the team the Rockets upset in the Western Conference semifinals after rallying from a 3-1 series deficit, are winning at the same clip they were last season.
Which isn't to say the Rockets have lost their confidence. They still believe they can keep up with the Warriors -- and anyone else, for that matter. In a recent interview with Sports Illustrated, Rockets star James Harden was asked about how the Rockets match up with the Warriors and how Houston could possibly beat Golden State in the postseason:
RN: You guys are coming off a loss to the Warriors in the playoffs. What will it take to beat them in a seven-game series?
JH: Last year we were close. I think the first two games we lost by six or seven points total. All of the games were really tight. They’re a great team, obviously they shoot a lot of threes. We have to figure out a way to slow Klay (Thompson) and Steph (Curry) down. When they’re making a lot of threes, it’s tough. But if you can find a way to contest all their shots, and make all the other guys take contested shots as well, then you have a chance. It’s when you let them make layups, freely get threes, then everyone starts making threes and it’s a disaster after that. Obviously they’re a really good team. Their bigs are really good passers, you have to make sure to pressure their bigs as well. It’s easier said than done.
This season, the Rockets have stirred the pot with their Bay Area adversaries on several occasions. Lawson said Stephen Curry would actually have to play defense with Lawson on board. Harden said he knew he was the real MVP. Just over a month ago, Harden didn't take too fondly to Klay Thompson saying he was the game's best shooting guard. The bad blood is there.
But Harden's comments here actually come off as positive and complimentary. There are no subtle shots at Curry or Thompson. How could there be? What could Harden possibly critique about the Warriors's performance this season?
Harden's approach to answering the above question proves the Warriors have shut up most of their critics. All the smack talk the Rockets were spewing at the Warriors earlier is gone. They're simply too good to criticize anymore.
What's more, the Warriors have already defeated the Rockets twice this season, first by 20 points and then again by four without Curry (Thompson outscored Harden, 38-30, after the "best shooting guard" comments).
Golden State only made 20 combined 3-pointers in the two contests (an average of 10 per game), which is actually fewer than they average (12.9 per game). So though Harden's comments about their shooting certainly ring true, the Rockets really haven't really felt the pain of a Warriors 3-point barrage this season ... yet.
At this point, the Rockets should be fighting with all they have to get to the No. 5 spot and set up a rematch with the Clippers. They've seemed to gain a psychological edge on Los Angeles, winning five of their last six contests going back to the playoffs, and that seems to be the only team they could realistically "upset" among the West's top four.
And, if the Rockets somehow pull that off, waiting for in them in round two will be the Warriors. Imagine that.
Jovan Buha covers the NBA for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jovanbuha.