It seems only fitting that the Western Conference Finals comes down to the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. MVP Stephen Curry leads the league’s top team against MVP runner-up James Harden and the No.2 seed in the West, and an "Old West Shootout" appears to be in the making.
Curry has been the best player on the best team in the 2014-2015 season, and his 28.2 points per game leads all players that remain in the postseason. While Harden has arguably been just as good in the playoffs, Curry’s supporting cast has been better all year, and the case should be the same in the upcoming series.
On his way to winning one of the most competitive MVP races in recent memory, Curry put up historical numbers. While averaging 23.8 points and 7.7 assists per game, Curry was incredibly efficient. The sharpshooter made 48.7 percent of his field goals, 44.3 percent of his three-point attempts and 91.4 percent of his free throws.
What’s made Curry even more dangerous has been his partner in Golden State’s backcourt. Klay Thompson has solidified his spot as basketball’s No.2 shooting guard, right behind Harden, and the “Splash Brothers” have been almost impossible for opposing teams to defend. Thompson averaged 21.7 points per game in the regular season, and he and Curry combined for 525 three-pointers, surpassing the totals of five NBA teams.
The Memphis Grizzlies were the league’s No.4 defensive team, and they were unable to stop the Warriors, losing their second-round series in six games. Curry and Thompson combined to average 42.3 points while shooting nearly 43 percent from three-point range against Memphis, and they should be able to find similar success in the Western Conference Finals.
In four regular-season games, the Warriors went undefeated against the Rockets. The Splash Brothers combined to average more points than they did in the other 78 games, as Curry shot 57.8 percent from the field and an incredible 51.9 percent from three-point range. Houston surrendered 257 total points in their last two games against Golden State.
Point guard Patrick Beverley played in both of those contests, but an injury has kept him out for the entirety of the playoffs. Jason Terry has since replaced him in the starting lineup, and the veteran will have a much more difficult time keeping Curry in check. Harden’s defense has seen a significant improvement from last year, but the load he’s forced to carry on offense will make it difficult for him to slow down Thompson.
The only way the Rockets can upset the Warriors will be for Houston to match Golden State offensively. It will be very difficult for head coach Kevin McHale’s team to go toe-to-toe with the league's No.2 offense, though Houston has the ability to do so when they’re playing their best.
As good as Curry’s been this year, Harden has been right there with him. Harden has been incredibly efficient in the playoffs, coming close to matching his regular-season numbers. In 12 postseason games, Harden is averaging 26.7 points on just 17 shot attempts per contest. He's making 93.6 percent of his 10.4 free throws per game, while adding an average of 4.8 rebounds and 8.0 assists.
But the Warriors are too good for Harden to defeat by himself. The shooting guard will need help from Houston’s supporting cast, which has gotten the job done, for the most part, this postseason.
Dwight Howard was Houston’s No.2 scorer against the Los Angeles Clippers last round, but his most important role came on defense and on the glass. He grabbed 16.8 rebounds per game in the Rockets’ wins last series, and rebounding will be key for Houston. They failed to outrebound Golden State in all three games in which Andrew Bogut played against them, including their first matchup against the Warriors this year, which saw the center pull down 18 rebounds.
Josh Smith came on strong during Houston’s three-game winning streak to end their series with the Clippers, averaging 14.3 points on 57.7 percent shooting from the field. He averaged 6.3 points on 27 percent shooting in the first four games. Terrence Jones was also better in Houston wins, averaging 11.5 points and 5.3 rebounds compared to 8.7 points and 3.7 rebounds in the three losses to L.A.
No team in NBA history has made more three-pointers than the 2014-2015 Rockets, hitting 11.4 shots from behind the arc per game. The Warriors have been even better in the postseason, making 11.5 threes per game, while shooting 38.5 percent.
The Rockets benefited from having home-court advantage last series, but they won’t be at home in a potential Game 7 in the Western Conference Finals. The Warriors have lost just three games at Oracle Arena this season, including the playoffs. Houston has a combined 28-18 record on the road.
Golden State is a heavy favorite to reach the NBA Finals for good reason. The Warriors have been the NBA’s best team all year long by a comfortable margin. Harden should help Houston steal one game, and the Rockets could have a chance to win one or two more. But the Rockets should have trouble keeping up with the explosive Warriors.
Golden State-800, Houston+600 [Bet Online]
Golden State in five