This is a public service announcement. If you aren’t taking the Houston Rockets seriously yet, because they play in Texas, because Chris Paul and James Harden seemed like a strange combination, or because you’re just sure that the Warriors will come out of the West, it’s time to start paying attention. They’ve already put their previous franchise record for wins in the rearview mirror (59) with sixty-one wins and counting. Of those, thirty-one are at home and thirty are on the road, they just don’t care. They’ve won their last ten straight and have only lost once over their last twenty-eight. Their scoring differential is a gaudy 9.4 points, the best in the league. They’re a juggernaut rolling over anything in their way, and if James Harden isn’t your call for MVP, you’d better have a really, really compelling argument for someone else. If you think it’s LeBron, that’s cool, he’s an all-timer, but why did the Cavaliers need to rebuild mid- season if he can carry the Cavs alone? Why are the Cavs only truly dangerous with Kevin Love in the lineup? (mic drop). Barring an injury to Harden, the Rockets are going to bulldoze their way into the Western Conference Finals. Mark my words, even if Golden State can get back to 100% and make the Finals, they’ll face a tough challenge.
Last week I told you the Warriors were dinged up. This week, it doesn’t look any better, in fact, it’s gotten worse for the defending champs. Durant has proclaimed he’ll be back for Thursday night’s tilt with the Bucks, but is that really a good idea? While the return of Kevin Durant can never be considered a bad thing, let’s take Steph Curry’s quick return as a cautionary tale, shall we? Curry rushed back from an ankle tweak only to strain his MCL in his first game back. That’s a pretty predictable outcome when you try to perform at a high level with lingering injuries that affect your ability to move and absorb the rigors of the game. In trying to play with that gimpy ankle, Curry made himself vulnerable to more injury. At this point, I’ll ignore the fact that he made a change and wore his new Under Armor low tops for the game for some strange reason. I’m not saying that those new kicks caused the knee injury, but I think we can all agree that high-tops are better at supporting the ankles…Curry will miss at least the first round of the playoffs, and the Warriors had better right the ship without him, and quickly. That means getting the remaining core of the team healthy. That means Durant. That means Draymond Green who was scratched with flu-like symptoms. It also means Klay Thompson, whose thumb ailment lingers. They’ve lost six of their last ten and have looked terrible in doing so. If they can’t get right and they draw the wrong matchup in the first round, say, the white-hot Jazz (who they would play if the playoffs started today), it could be a very rough start for the presumed Western Conference favorites. I don’t mean scraping by. I mean going home before Curry ever has a chance to play again. I’m not saying the book is closed on the Warriors this season, but I am saying that they aren’t the squad that looked like it had a free pass to the Finals.
Sure, the Spurs are likely going to make the playoffs, chaos with perennial all-star Kawhi Leonard aside. The trouble is, somewhere in the midst of the shellacking by the Washington Wizards, All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge got his knee banged up, and he’ll have a MRI today to determine the extent of the damage. The Spurs have been so good, for so long that the last time the team didn’t win fifty games, their point guard Dejounte Murray was in diapers (that’s not a joke, he was actually under a year old). Coach Popovich, as if he doesn’t deserve it every year, should have a strangle hold on the Coach of the Year award. How he’s kept this shell of a squad in contention thus far is completely beyond me. It’s clear that he, too, is starting to crack, though. Following the blowout loss to the Wizards, Coach Popovich didn’t mince words: “As far as we’re concerned, I thought it was a really poor example of mental toughness in the sense of no real discipline and no real effort. There are one or two guys here and there that gave effort but last time I heard it was a team sport. The lack of mental discipline and mental toughness tonight was very disappointing.” Coach Pop generally has an emotional range something like Bill Belichick, where his mood swings from grumpy all the way to curmudgeonly, but this was different. This was meant to rub his team the wrong way. If they can’t compete with playoff bound teams, why are they hanging in? I’m not sure that Kawhi Leonard can turn the Spurs into a legitimate contender if he returns, but if they have to go into the first round without both him and Aldridge, it’s going to be a very, very short playoff run.
As for the rest of the West? It’s going to be an interesting last few games of the season, with seeding and playoff slots still way up in the air. The Blazers are solidly in third, but after that, it gets really murky, really quickly. Only four games separate the fourth through tenth place teams. Aside from the hard-charging Jazz, who have won eight of their last ten, all of those teams look to be fairly balanced, so every win will count. Don’t expect to see any clarity whatsoever until the final games have been played.
Image source: USA Today