Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Warriors are favored, but don’t count out Rockets

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) reacts after scoring during the first half of Game 5 in a second-round NBA playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, May 13, 2015.
Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) reacts after scoring during the first half of Game 5 in a second-round NBA playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, May 13, 2015. AP

This is a bit of a bummer, unfortunately. A Western Conference finals featuring the Warriors and Clippers would have incited more regional heat – raw, unfiltered antipathy – than any NBA series since the controversial 2002 Kings-Lakers Western finals for one notable reason: Every series craves a villain.

Remember Steve Ballmer? He would have been perfect. For the Kings and Sacramento – and anyone else still dazed and amazed when driving past that massive construction site in the guts of downtown – he’s the software billionaire who wanted to buy and move the franchise to Seattle in 2013 and a year later purchased the Clippers from the reviled Donald T. Sterling.

Seriously. How much fun could have been poked at Ballmer while he sat courtside for Clippers-Warriors at Oracle Arena, making his goofy faces, thrusting his arms into the air in disgust or elation, or contorting his body in his familiar and excessive display of histrionics?

So maybe Sacramento can take its whacks next year. Or, ideally, the year after, when the Kings are settled into their swanky new digs and Vlade Divac, George Karl, DeMarcus Cousins and principal owner Vivek Ranadive have presided over a tale of two cities – one that almost lost the Kings and one that again is pushing for a playoff berth.

While the Kings prep for another NBA draft lottery, Ballmer broods at his new home in Southern California, Doc Rivers tries to scoop his melted ice cream back into the cone, and the Rockets will try to eliminate the top-seeded Warriors.

With the best-of-seven series beginning Tuesday at Oracle, there is at least one more reason Kings fans might temporarily embrace their Northern California neighbors and clog the I-80 shuttle between here and Oakland. Rockets owner Les Alexander was among the NBA owners who voted in favor of the Kings moving to Seattle, though only seven of his peers sided with him.

Setting aside the obvious – the Warriors are heavily favored and deservedly so – it would be unwise to dismiss the Rockets. True, the Warriors were the league’s best defensive team, were second in offensive efficiency and impressively overcame their two-game lapse against the Memphis Grizzlies in the semifinals. Plus, David Lee’s return gives them the conventional post presence they lacked.

With the best-of-seven series beginning Tuesday at Oracle, there is at least one more reason Kings fans might temporarily embrace their Northern California neighbors: Rockets owner Les Alexander voted in favor of the Kings moving to Seattle.

But the Rockets’ comeback from a 19-point deficit against the Clippers in Game 6 and their dominance in Game 7 suggest they are more than worthy of a longer look, perhaps in the mirror. The Rockets are more similar to the Warriors than the methodical, grit-and-grind Grizzlies, and they are surprisingly resilient. Despite season-ending injuries to point guard Patrick Beverley and center/forward Donatas Motiejunas, the Rockets won 56 regular-season games by playing fast, shooting three-pointers, scoring off back-cuts and breakouts, utilizing a deceptively useful bench, and exploiting the talents of All-Stars Dwight Howard and James Harden.

Howard, the league’s No. 1 rim protector when healthy, missed 41 games but appears rejuvenated. Against the Clippers, he outplayed DeAndre Jordan and was a frisky, athletic presence; it was as if someone shaved a few years off his birth certificate. If his good health persists, he could force the Warriors to provide help for Andrew Bogut, an excellent interior defender/screen setter who is far less mobile than Howard and at times appears to labor when he runs.

Harden, the runner-up to Warriors guard Stephen Curry in MVP balloting, is an explosive scorer whose mood swings can influence a game’s outcome. When his offense is balanced between creating for himself and initiating opportunities for teammates, the Rockets are scary, capable of crazy feats. He expects to be challenged defensively by Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, in no particular order.

While the Curry-Harden MVP debate is the sexiest discussion as the series begins, Warriors rookie coach Steve Kerr hasn’t been shy about experimenting with lineups, switches and double teams. He isn’t afraid to play his small guys against bigger opponents. He isn’t shrinking on the NBA’s biggest stage, his limited head-coaching experience notwithstanding.

The Rockets are more similar to the Warriors than the methodical, grit-and-grind Grizzlies, and they are surprisingly resilient.

The same could be said for more experienced Rockets coach Kevin McHale. The Hall of Fame power forward was excoriated mere days ago for his early Hack-a-Jordan tactics, which he admitted had been a mistake in some circumstances. That’s McHale, who tells it the way he feels it; you like it or you don’t. But he also benched Harden during the stunning fourth-quarter comeback in Game 6. Perhaps, as was suggested, Harden was still feeling poorly. Or maybe McHale the coach mimicked McHale the Hall of Fame player: If you weren’t playing well, he didn’t want you on the court.

All of this occurred months after McHale coaxed a career season from Corey Brewer, energized Trevor Ariza and squeezed a productive year out of veteran Jason Terry and productive weeks out of Pablo Prigioni, while transforming mercurial Josh Smith into a crucial, under-control performer.

As one longtime NBA scout warned, “Don’t sleep on the Rockets. They have length, quickness and depth and, when Harden is a willing passer, are very dangerous.”

Warriors-Rockets it is then, and rest assured, Oakland’s neighbors to the east will be watching. But so will Ballmer and his Clippers. That’s good, right?

WARRIORS VS. ROCKETS

Best-of-seven Western Conference finals

All games at 6 p.m. on ESPN; x-if necessary

  • Tuesday: Houston at Golden State
  • Thursday: Houston at Golden State
  • Saturday: Golden State at Houston
  • May 25: Golden State at Houston
  • x-May 27: Houston at Golden State
  • x-May 29: Golden State at Houston
  • x-May 31: Houston at Golden State
Related stories from Sacramento Bee

  Comments