OAKLAND (AP) — The MVP race was decided weeks ago. Newly crowned Stephen Curry and runner-up James Harden insist there’s a bigger prize they’ve wanted all along.
Now is their chance to compete for it.
Curry and the top-seeded Golden State Warriors will meet Harden and the rejuvenated Houston Rockets in the Western Conference finals beginning tonight.
The Baby-Faced Assassin starring opposite the Bearded One is a scintillating subplot to a series that should feature a frenetic pace and a ton of 3-point shots. But when the ball is tossed amid a sea of screaming fans in golden-yellow shirts at Oracle Arena, only one thing will be on the minds of the leading men.
“We’re four wins away from getting to the Finals and one step closer to our dream,” Curry said. “There’s one team in our way to get there. That’s it.”
The Warriors went 4-0 against the Rockets in the regular season, winning by an average of 15.3 points. But a lot has changed for Houston since the teams last played Jan. 21.
Dwight Howard sat out two meetings and is playing as well as he has in years. Josh Smith has found his groove and starters Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas are out with injuries.
“We’re a new team,” Harden said. “It’s a new series.”
The Warriors rolled to a franchise-record 67 wins in the regular season, finishing 11 games ahead of second-place Houston. Golden State is in the conference finals for the first time since 1976, a year after winning the franchise’s only Bay Area title.
The Rockets are in the conference finals for the first time since 1997. Houston hasn’t been to the NBA Finals since winning back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995.
The offensive sets vary between the teams, but the overall philosophy is similar: make stops, push the pace and spread the floor with shooters.
“That’s our brand of basketball,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “And we feel like we’re really good at our brand of basketball.”
Both teams rallied from series deficits to win three straight games in the last round. The Warriors overcame a 2-1 hole against Memphis, and the Rockets became the ninth team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series when they closed out the Clippers in Game 7 on Sunday.
Whether the Rockets are recovered from that emotional series is unclear. The tight turnaround — and long-distance flight — surely don’t work in their favor.
But after fighting back to get this far, this much is clear: the Rockets don’t lack for confidence.
“We’re going to put the pressure on them,” Harden said. “It’s the playoffs, anything can happen.”
Here are some things to watch for during the series:
THREE BALL: The Warriors and Rockets made more 3-pointers than any team in the NBA during the regular season, and they haven’t slowed down in the playoffs. They’re averaging nearly 30 attempts per game, with the Warriors shooting a postseason-high 40 percent and the Rockets just under 35 percent from beyond the arc. Which team shoots it best from long range — and can stop the other — will be a major factor in this series.
TWO-WAY THOMPSON: Klay Thompson is often touted as the league’s best two-way shooting guard, a player who can score at will and dominate on defense. The Warriors will lean on Thompson to harass Harden, who averaged 25.3 points, 5.3 assists and 5.5 rebounds while shooting 40 percent against Golden State in the regular season. Harden also had a hard time stopping Thompson, who averaged 21.8 points against Houston.
HACK-A-HOWARD: Don’t expect Golden State to intentionally foul Howard the way the Clippers and Mavericks have in the first two series. Warriors coach Steve Kerr believes the strategy disrupts his team’s flow and fast pace. But with Howard shooting 41.3 percent on free throws in the playoffs, Kerr could employ the approach in certain situations. Of course, Rockets coach Kevin McHale could return the favor. Warriors center Andrew Bogut shot 52.4 percent from the line in the regular season and is just 1 for 4 in the playoffs.
THE OTHER GUYS: Both teams have counted on their depth to get this far. The Warriors bring former All-Stars Andre Iguodala and David Lee and veterans Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa off the bench. Forward Marreese Speights is out for Game 1 with a strained right calf but could return later in the series. The Rocketsplayed half the season without Howard and have gotten big performances in the playoffs from reserves Corey Brewer, Pablo Prigioni and Terrence Jones.
HOME-COURT ADVANTAGE: If the Rockets want to advance to the NBA Finals, they’ll need to win at least one game — and probably two — on Golden State’s home floor. That’s been the toughest task in the league this season. The Warriors are 43-3 at raucous Oracle Arena, including a Game 2 loss in their last series against Memphis. The Rockets last won in Oakland on Dec. 13, 2013.