The defending global basketball champion Golden State Warriors are headed to Houston to face the #1 seeded Rockets. Anyone who has any passing fancy in the broiling drama that is the NBA has to be pumped up about this matchup. These two juggernauts are the betting favorites to win the title. The star-power is ridiculous (featuring nine players who have made an All-Star game in their careers). Not to mention, the scoring will be breathtaking as their two historically explosive offenses square off.
But perhaps most importantly, the Rockets’ brain trust has made something very clear: they were assembled to halt the burgeoning empire in Oakland before it reaches the pinnacle of dynastic glory.
We are looking at a critical intersection in NBA history, similar to Jordan’s Bulls vs Isaiah’s Pistons, or Lebron’s Heat vs Pierce’s Celtics. For Houston’s backcourt of Chris Paul and James Harden, defeat would mean they failed in their best opportunity (to date) to seize the NBA title against the league’s biggest roadblock. For all of their gaudy stats, this series will act as referendum on whether or not “CP3” and “The Beard” are winners.
Or, to put it another, gold-blooded way: we’re gonna find out if Stephen Curry still has the souls of Paul & Harden imprisoned in his daughter Riley’s fish-tank.
Let’s reflect on how we reached this climactic juncture.
The fallen point god
Chris Paul is an ornery, future hall-of-fame point guard, with an alleged “little man complex”. And back when Steph Curry entered the league as a skinny, young hopeful, Paul was the standard bearer for the position. His nickname is “CP3,” but in certain circles it was literally “Point God”.
He’s also the reason Curry became an unguardable, cold-blooded, NBA assassin.
Legendary Warriors reporter extraordinare Marcus Thompson once wrote:
Curry got to this level in part because of his rivalry with Paul. Over the years, no opponent has been more of a motivator for Curry than Paul. No point guard has pushed Curry to improve his game as Paul has.
It was the standard set by CP3, the clashes they shared through the developing of the Warriors-Clippers rivalry, that fueled Curry in the crafting of his transcendent game.
“It sure was,” Curry said. ‘Still does.”
It was Paul who best exposed the weaknesses in Curry’s game — that physicality could knock Curry off course, that pressure could hurry him into mistakes, that taking away his 3-point shooting neutered his game.
In the first round of the 2013-2014 playoffs, Paul had his last true triumph over Curry. CP3 led the Los Angeles Clippers to victory in an emotionally volatile seven game series over an upstart Warriors team led by the Bay’s baby-faced prodigy, Curry.
An enduring moment from that series was Curry airballing a game-winning shot in the waning seconds from Game 3 as Paul clawed at his arms like Wolverine.
This devastating series loss effectively (and prematurely, depending on who you asked at the time) terminated the tenure of Curry’s beloved head coach, Pastor Mark Jackson.
Thompson continued to explain in his article that Curry hit the weight room and developed next level ball-handling in order to deal with the “handsy,” punishing, physical harassment from CP3.
From the next season on, it would become clear that Curry would be bullied no longer by the pint sized Olympian. Under new head coach Steve Kerr, Curry is now famous for targeting Paul for a series of soul-snatching highlights and scoring binges that ripped the mantle of “best point guard alive” from CP3’s clutches.
You know it’s bad when hall-of-fame point guard Isaiah Thomas had to roast Paul after Curry donated the “Point God’s” ankles to charity.
Unfortunately, Curry was unable to exact his vengeance on the Clippers and the diminishing Paul in the postseason, as CP3’s squad blew a 3-1 lead in the 2015 playoffs to the Houston Rockets. If the Clippers had won that final game of the series, they would have advanced on to meet Curry’s Warriors in the conference finals. Instead, the Warriors won the championship that year, Curry won MVP, and the Golden Empire began.
Meanwhile, Paul’s Clippers were never heard from again, except as the occasional punching bag for the Dubs. By the end of last season, Curry’s rise to superstardom, Unanimous MVPs, and championships had left Paul behind as a forgotten dinosaur of a bygone era who could never make the conference finals. Even Sports Illustrated couldn’t help but pour more salt on Chef Curry cooking Paul: they penned an article entitled, “Stephen Curry has a long history of duping Chris Paul”.
It seemed as though the “Unanimous”/CP3 rivalry had quickly burnt out in the wake of Curry’s stratospheric ascendance to pantheon level greatness...
Meanwhile, in Houston...
...Remember how Paul couldn’t get the job done in the 2015 playoffs and presided over that 3-1 collapse to the Rockets? That Houston team was led by a young, crafty, scoring savant with a penchant for humiliating his defenders: James Harden. “The Beard” was a former teammate of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Harden, like most good players, was unleashed once he was far away from the scepter of Westbrook’s domineering ways.
In ‘15, he was the leader of the #2 seed (the Warriors were #1) and was vocal about two surprising assertions that raised some eyebrows in Oakland.
The world had a mistake by giving Curry the MVP award. Harden believed he was the one, true, real MVP. He mentioned it before the Rockets-Dubs clash, and then doubled down after the series was over:
“I am the best player in the league. I believe that. I thought I was last year, too. I know I was the MVP. That’s 100 percent given all the things that happened last season…. Credit the Golden State Warriors for an unbelievable year. They had an unbelievable team, coaching staff, everything.
But that award means most valuable to your team. We finished second in the West, which nobody thought we were going to do at the beginning of the year even when everybody was healthy. We were near the top in having the most injuries. We won our division in a division where every single team made the playoffs.
There’s so many factors. I led the league in total points scored, minutes played. Like I said, I’m not taking anything away from Steph, but I felt I deserved the Most Valuable Player.”
Wait wait, so not only is the Golden Child and the ressurector of Oakland basketball a fradulent MVP...THE WHOLE TEAM AIN’T THAT GOOD? I actually forgot why I originally disdained Houston until I got to this part of the article. Now, the gold-blooded contempt is back to optimum, burning levels.
Anyways, Curry led the Warriors as they proceeded to bodybag Harden and Houston in five games in the ‘15 Western Conference Finals. Harden had an NBA playoff record 13 turnovers in the final game. Interestingly, his most famous turnover ever actually came at the end of Game 2, when he choked away the final seconds under a crushing wave of Splash Bros defense.
Did he really pass that back to Dwight Howard at the three point line? LOL.
The Rockets faced the Warriors again in the 2016 playoffs, and were again dispatched in a quick five games. The most notable moment in this series was Curry almost blowing his knee out slipping in a sweaty spot in Game 4. That knee injury would limit him for the rest of the playoffs, eventually costing the Warriors a championship in the Finals. Thanks, Donatas Motiejunas.
The one bright spot for the Warriors losing the Finals that year was the arrival of former MVP, Kevin Durant. With KD, the Warriors unleashed hell on the league (again) in 2017, going 16-1 in the postseason (with no losses versus the Western Conference bracket).
The enemy of my enemy is my backcourt partner
While the Warriors romped through the ‘17 playoffs, the Rockets flamed out in the second round against the San Antonio Spurs as Harden wilted in the deciding Game 6 at home. Here’s Dieter Kurtenbach at Fox Sports incredulous response, for posterity:
No, seriously, what was that?
Because by the looks of it, it appears that James Harden, one of the favorites to win the MVP award this year, followed up his terrible clutch performance in Game 5 with an even worse Game 6.
An all-time bad Game 6.
A performance so woeful, so puzzling, that it has to go down as the defining moment of Harden’s season.
A performance so listless, it has to go down as the defining moment of Harden’s career.
Of course, he still thought he was the real MVP. Check out his reaction to Russell Westbrook’s victory speech at last year’s MVP award ceremony.
After that crushingly tragic showing, Rockets GM Daryl Morey knew he needed to bring in somebody who could help Harden get over the hump. Not only that, he was specifically anxious in finding someone to help them beat the Warriors.
Back on Dec. 22, 2017, Rockets GM Daryl Morey told @ryenarussillo: "It's the only thing we think about. I think I'm not supposed to say that, but we're basically obsessed with 'How do we beat the Warriors?'"— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) May 9, 2018
Enter Chris Paul.
Adding Paul’s prodigious skills has yielded encouraging results. Houston had the best regular season record, a historically elite offense, improved defensive accountability, and a 2-1 series victory over the Warriors during the regular season. Paul even booted out the resilient Utah Jazz last round with a clutch 41 point performance in Houston (canning eight three-pointers!).
Will CP3 and the Beard snatch their legacies back?
In competition, it’s natural to have a healthy dislike of an opponent who stands in the way. That fire is what fuels many of the greats. You should be ashamed if the same guy keeps kicking your ass, year after year, rendering you a second-class NBA citizen.
However, I’m going to offer that Harden and Paul have proved a vicious envy of what Curry has accomplished. Marcus Thompson, in an appearance on The Big Lead podcast, was asked what players disdain Curry’s rise, and guess whose name came up immediately?
Chris Paul was one of those guys. Chris Paul was somebody [Curry] looked up to. Chris Paul used to dominate that matchup. Chris Paul was supposed to be next in line to win a championship. Then, suddenly, it was Steph … that’s another relationship where [Curry] was like, ‘oh, I look up to you,’ and suddenly there is this disdain vs Steph. There’s a lot of those …
Wellp, haters gonna hate, and “Steph Gonna Steph”.
Here’s what we do know:
- Curry has bounced back well from the knee and ankle injuries he suffered this season. He averaged 24 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals with 44% shooting from the three-point arc in four games against the Pelicans. He’s looking ready to torch anyone in his way.
- Harden is finally the favorite to win MVP this year (but probably not unanimously. That’s reserved for Curry).
- Paul is in the Western Conference finals for the first time.
- Curry’s Warriors have been victorious in the WCF the last three years. He has two MVP’s and two rings to show for it.
I’m sure the greatest shooter of all time is more than eager to show, for the umpteenth time, that these two dudes are not on his level.
Look for Curry to settle this beef with these wannabe’s the same way he always does: COOKIN’.