In 2014-15 they were the top two seeds, led by the top two MVP vote getters. They were two contenders on the rise, and met in the conference finals in a clash of the West’s elite. But the Warriors put away the Rockets with ease, winning the series 4-1.
A year later, the Warriors took a step forward, winning 73 games, while the Rockets fell back to the eight seed. They met in the first round, and the result was the same: 4-1 Golden State.
In 2017-18 the Warriors had retooled into an unstoppable force with Kevin Durant, but the Rockets had made a move of their own, acquiring Chris Paul. Houston was a contender, and the top seed in the West. Again they met in the conference finals and, in as dramatic a series as possible, the Warriors won 4-3.
And then last year they met in the semifinals, Houston again with visions of upsetting the dynastic Dubs; but Golden State would win 4-2.
So much has happened for those teams during that timespan. Durant and Paul came and left. Steph Curry and James Harden won MVPs and developed a rivalry, albeit a friendly one. Andre Iguodala and Clint Capela were traded. Russell Westbrook arrived, even if the Warriors have yet to face that iteration of Houston in the playoffs.
And through it all, the Warriors have won all four matchups, accumulating a 16-7 record in the process.
I’m reminded of an outdoor cat I had in high school. I once looked out the window to see her sitting in the grass, tossing an object up in the air and batting at it repeatedly like a boxer with a speed bag. I went out to see what was going on, and found that she’d caught a mole. But rather than killing it to eat, she had simply kept it around for sport. I arrived to find the poor rodent scared stiff, but completely unharmed physically.
She was playing with it. Letting it nearly get away before pawing it back and tossing it in the air. Giving the illusion of a fair fight for what was anything but.
It feels a bit like the Warriors and Rockets. The first meeting was billed as a clash of the new contenders, yet the Warriors made it uncompetitive. The second meeting was salt in the wound.
The third meeting was were the dynamic truly took off. The Rockets took a 3-2 series lead, and needed just one win to dethrone the Warriors and head to the NBA Finals. They jumped out to a 17-point lead after the first quarter of Game 6, in the Warriors own building, silencing the crowd entirely.
Golden State outscored Houston 93-47 in the next three quarters, including 31-9 in the final frame, to win by 29.
The headed back to Texas, the Rockets still needing just one win. They carried a double-digit lead into the locker room at halftime. And then the Warriors won the third quarter 33-15, and won the game by nine.
The fourth meeting again offered the Rockets hope. Though the Warriors led the series 3-2, Durant had suffered an injury and would miss the rest of the series. This was Houston’s chance. After claiming they’d lost the year prior only because of an injury to Paul, they now were presented an opportunity to feast on the damaged Dubs.
They were home for Game 6, and they held Curry scoreless in the first half. But even so the game was only tied. Curry erupted for 33 in the second half, shimmying all over the Toyota Center as a compromised Golden State squad ended the series in enemy territory.
It was ruthless. It was rude.
The matchups have had the emotion of a rivalry. Playing 23 games in the playoffs will do that, and the fire has been stoked by dramatic regular season contests and shots fired between players, coaches, and even front offices.
But is it a rivalry? Can you consider a team a rival if they’ve never beaten you? Or are the Rockets just the mole to the Warriors cat — futilely running away, under the impression that they might succeed, nearing the escape with wide eyes, not realizing that they never had a chance?