On the eve of a historic clash between the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets, I wondered if this season’s Rockets were indeed the strongest foe the champs have ever faced out West since Steve Kerr took over the team. The general consensus around the media seems to be “finally, the Warriors have met their match.”
In the spirit of curiosity and discovery, GSoM has cobbled together a “Top 5” of the most difficult Western Conference playoff matchups of the Steve Kerr era. Our writers have given a short memorial for each one of those teams, and we’ll leave it up to you, the people, to decide.
Now, in no particular order, is our western rogues’ gallery:
Memphis Grizzlies 2014-2015
Record: 55-27 PTS/G: 98.3 (20th) Opp PTS/G: 95.1 (2nd)
Pace: 92.0 (26th) Off Rtg: 105.7 (13th) Def Rtg: 102.2 (3rd)
Series outcome: Warriors prevailed 4-2 over Memphis after trailing 2-1
Nate: I think the argument for the Grizzlies being the toughest opponent is pretty obvious even if it’s more based in the emotion of the time than the numbers or their success. The Grizzlies had straight bullied us for years and in the Warriors’ last regular season win, Mike Conley and Tony Allen were out. So even if most of the predictions were in our favor here, there was still legitimate fear about being able to overcome this obstacle going into the series… and then we went down 2-1 with Allen yelling in our faces about being “First Team All-D.”
So although I think it would be easy to dismiss the Grizzlies among the list of teams that has been the toughest Western Conference opponent, bear in mind that this was the first postseason test this team encountered, it was against a team that we had seemingly never had consistent answers for entering the series, and their “grit-and-grind” style was the clear antithesis to “pace-and-space.” Was it more of a narrative challenge than the quantifiable challenge that some of these other teams have been? Maybe...but how many teams without LeBron James can say they’ve had an edge on the Warriors in the last four years?
OKC Thunder 2015-2016
Record: 55-27 PTS/G: 110.2 (2nd) Opp PTS/G: 102.9 (15th)
Pace: 96.7 (10th) Off Rtg: 113.1 (2nd) Def Rtg: 105.6 (13th)
Series outcome: Warriors won 4-3 after trailing 3-1.
Greg - Holy hell! What a series this was. The Warriors had the “perfect season” on the line and had exited Oklahoma City nearly broken down 3-1 heading into game 5. The Thunder were playing at their peak with the super tandem of Russell Westbrook & Kevin Durant vying for another Finals berth. The Warriors looked human for the first time all season; they were vulnerable and facing elimination.
The Warriors took the series to 3-2, heading back to Oklahoma City with Stephen Curry telling the crowd “We’re not going home!” It all led into an unforgettable come from behind victory in game 6; facing elimination again, Klay Thompson put the whole damn Bay Area on his back as him and Curry led the final close out to push it to game 7.
Game 7 wasn’t nearly as memorable, but the Thunder gave the Warriors the greatest challenge that forced them to dig deepest.
Houston Rockets 2014-2015
Record: 56-26 PTS/G: 103.9 (6th) Opp PTS/G: 100.5
Pace: 96.5 (2nd) Off Rtg: 107.0 (12th) Def Rtg: 103.4 (8th)
Series outcome: Warriors won 4-1.
Tom: A confluence of factors made this Rockets squad perhaps the toughest Western Conference team the Warriors faced in the playoffs under Steve Kerr. That Rockets team was riding an impressive wave of momentum as they’d come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference Semifinals to beat (future Rocket) Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers. So they were feeling both confident as well as free as they were playing with the proverbial house money.
Also, the Warriors were still a young team without a ton of postseason experience. Many pundits and prognosticators saw the Warriors as being a good and fun team but still a year or two away from really being able to challenge for the title.
This would be the biggest test for the Warriors at this point in the 2015 playoffs-- could they break through and compete for a league championship, a step that’s one of the toughest to take. The Rockets, meanwhile, boasted players who had played in the playoffs, played for championships, and even won them. We tend to forget just how fresh on the championship scene the Warriors were and the (relative) advantage the Rockets boasted in terms of postseason experience.
I also think how tough the 2014-15 Rockets were gets lost in part because of the Warriors 2015-16 season and, specifically, Stephen Curry’s unaminous MVP win and how that dominates our collective memory. Curry won the MVP in that 2015 season too, and quite deservedly so, but it was not the unanimous victory like the one that came a year later. The Rockets boasted a player in James Harden who was a legitimate threat to win the MVP. Harden came in seond and received 25 first-place votes.
It was that season that Harden made the leap into the upper echelons of NBA talent. While Curry’s 2015 season was much more special and deserving of the MVP, it was not the runaway victory of 2016. In Harden, the Rockets had a player that many thought deserved the MVP award over Curry. I would not condone such a thing and think it’s a ridiculous argument to make, but one could.
Harden was probably the best single player the Warriors would have to face out of the Western Conference that year (though not in the entire playoffs, as that honor obviously went to LeBron James), and it was he who stood between them and reaching the NBA Finals. That was going to be a great challenge to overcome and, of course, the Warriors did.
San Antonio Spurs 2016-2017
Record: 61-21 PTS/G: 105.3 (14th) Opp PTS/G: 98.1 (2nd)
Pace: 94.2 (27th) Off Rtg: 111.1 (9th) Def Rtg: 103.5 (1st)
Series outcome: Warriors won 4-0.
Greg - The Warriors had been able to dodge the Spurs for most of their Championship title run until they finally squared off in last year’s Western Conference Finals. The Spurs have, for much of the past two decades become the model franchise under the coaching wizardry of Gregg Popovich. Kawhi Leonard was an MVP candidate and the Spurs were still the Spurs.
In game one, the Spurs completely pulverized the Warriors and were up nearly 20 points heading into halftime. The entire series suddenly shifted when Leonard went down after falling on Zaza Pachulia’s foot. The Warriors came storming back and took game one with a frantic comeback. The Spurs weren’t nearly as deadly after game one and just haven’t looked the same since without their best player.
This is one of those what if scenarios. Had Leonard not got hurt, the Spurs would have won game one. This would have shifted the momentum and with a healthy Leonard who knows if this would have gone 6 or 7 games.
Houston Rockets 2017-2018
Record: 65-17 PTS/G: 112.4 (2nd) Opp PTS/G: 103.9 (6th)
Pace: 97.6 (13th) Off Rtg: 114.7 (1st) Def Rtg: 106.1 (6th)
Series outcome: TBA.
Duby: Gross. I can’t believe I have to write a flowery love letter to the team we are about to face in the Playoffs. But ok, here’s why this year’s Houston Rockets are our toughest opponents we’ve ever faced in the playoffs. Other than that Spurs team, no other opponent has been in the top 10 on offense and defense. They also have a better point differential than any of those other teams.
In fact, the Rockets were historically impressive this season:
Houston won 65 games during the regular season, the most of any postseason opponent Golden State has had over the past four years. The Rockets scored 114.6 points per 100 possessions, the 11th highest since 1979-80 ... effective field goal rate of 55.1 percent, the ninth-highest over that span and second highest in 2017-18 after the Warriors. Golden State’s edge in offensive efficiency against Houston, therefore, will be its lowest since the 2015 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the only time, at least on paper, they are the lessor of the two.
Now, moving off of the “paper” for a moment, there is some subjective concern here. If the Warriors’ toughest opponent is really ourselves, then maybe this just isn’t our year. It’s tough to objectively evaluate how vulnerable a team is, but the regular-season Warriors looked softer than a peeled grape.
The Rockets, on the other hand, just came off an amazing season and have been the better team for most of the year. Maybe regular season doesn’t matter, but if you look at the slew of teams we have faced, this Rockets team isn’t just tough, they’re waiting at the end of one of our roughest seasons.
Who is the toughest postseason opponent to face the Warriors in the West under Steve Kerr?
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