WASHINGTON — Defending NBA champion Golden State, seeking a third title in four seasons, faces season wins leader Houston in a tantalizing playoff showdown between a powerhouse Warriors squad and a Rockets team assembled to beat it.
“I like where we are. Our guys have rings. That’s a good position to be in,” said Golden State coach Steve Kerr, whose Warriors open the best-of-seven Western Conference finals at Houston on Monday in search of a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals.
“We’re going in here knowing we’re the defending champs, knowing we got a couple championships here the last few years. Let’s go get another one. It’s a nice feeling to have to go into a series with.”
The Rockets, sparked by NBA scoring champion James Harden, were 2-1 against Golden State in the regular season and went a league-best 65-17 overall, seizing a home-court advantage in the series.
After being ousted from the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs in three of the past four seasons, the Rockets added star guard Chris Paul and 3-point threat P.J. Tucker to join Trevor Ariza, then watched Swiss big man Clint Capela enjoy a career-best season with 13.9 points and 10.8 rebounds a game.
“It’s going to be a fight,” Capela said. “This team is going to be hard. There are going to be a lot of adjustments after every game. It’s going to be a chess game.”
The clash between the two offensively explosive teams has been anticipated since the start of the season.
“You wanted us. You got us. Now you’ve got to play the game,” said outspoken Golden State forward Draymond Green. “Their team is built to beat us, their obsession.
“Obviously you want to build your team to beat the defending champs because that’s usually how you’ve got to go to get a championship. Understandable. That stuff has been said for about a year now. It’s time to play.”
Green says the Warriors are all about adding another title, not ousting imitators.
“We won two championships in three years. We’re not about to run off talking about how bad we want to play somebody,” Green said. “We want to win another championship and it don’t matter who is in the way of that.”
Past NBA Most Valuable Players Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry join Green, Andre Iguodala and 3-point sharpshooter Klay Thompson in a starting lineup dubbed “Death” or “The Hamptons Five.”
A rose by any other name is still tough to beat.
“They are taking the challenge and they are embracing it,” Kerr said. “We seem to be at our best when we are threatened. And we’re definitely threatened.”
Curry has made a solid return after missing several weeks with knee and ankle injuries.
“I feel good. I feel confident in what I’m able to do,” Curry said. “I continue to get better, continue to get my timing right, continue to get back to the normal rotations.”
Golden State led the NBA in scoring just ahead of Houston this season. Now the Warriors rank as the top defensive squad in the playoffs just ahead of the Rockets.
“We’re going to be ready,” Capela said. “Everybody is excited about it.”
Harden averaged 30.4 points, 8.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds a game while Durant and Curry each averaged 26.4 points for Golden State this season and Thompson contributed 20 while Green is adding 13.1 points, 11.5 rebounds and nine assists in the playoffs.
For Paul and Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, it’s a chance for their first NBA Finals berth. Harden made his alongside Durant with Oklahoma City in 2012. Now they all want to bring the Rockets their first NBA title since 1994 and 1995.
“They are the champs. It’s going to be tough,” said Rockets forward Luc Mbah a Moute. “We have what we need. We’re ready. They have to be ready for us as well. We showed all season we match up well with them.
“We were the best team in the league all year but that’s not our goal. Our goal is to go further.” — AFP