There are several reasons why the Warriors would welcome seeing Houston in the playoffs, just as they look forward to facing the Rockets in Oakland Friday night.
There is the recent postseason history, the Warriors ousting the Rockets in 2015 and 2016, winning four of five each year.
There is the recent regular-season history, the Warriors winning nine of the last 10.
There are the points that tend to be available against Houston’s defense, which has not been championship level since Hakeem Olajawon was patrolling the paint in the mid-1990s.
And there is, perhaps most of all, the supreme confidence that comes from knowing they can contain guard James Harden, the centerpiece of the Rockets.
From the moment Steve Kerr arrived before the 2014-15 season, he has preached incessantly about the key to defending the league’s best players, and Harden as a five-time All-Star and current leading MVP candidate surely fits that category.
“Don’t reach,” Kerr says repeatedly.
“Just don’t foul him,” says Klay Thompson, the team’s primary defender on Harden. “He’s going to get his buckets. He’s going to make his plays off the dribble. But you just try not to foul him, because he goes to the line the most in the league and you don’t want him getting his rhythm at the free throw line.”
Harden goes to the line more than anyone else largely because he’s a master at drawing fouls. He quickly seizes upon any defender that extends an arm, ripping through the reach and usually getting the whistle. Though the Warriors have, for the most part, gotten better at avoiding cheap fouls on Harden, they’ve done a terrific job of not letting him take over games.
The numbers paint vivid portrait of their defensive success.
The Warriors on Tuesday held Harden to 20 points on 5-of-20 shooting, including 1-of-9 from 3-point distance. His tender left wrist was a factor, but the numbers are not dramatically different from those Harden puts up against the Warriors when healthy.
In three games this season, two won by the Warriors victories, Harden is 19-of-56 (33.9 percent) from the field and 3-of-25 (12 percent) from 3-point distance.
In 10 games over the past three seasons, Harden is 75-of-198 (37.9 percent) from the field and 22-of-84 (26.2 percent) from deep.
Thompson always looks forward to the opportunity to face his old high school rival. It helps that the two are of similar size -- Harden is 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, Thompson 6-7, 215 -- but mostly it’s an instance of a fine defender facing a fabulous scorer.
“Him being the MVP candidate that he is, it’s always fun to measure yourself against the best,” says Thompson, who is sure to receive votes in the Defensive Player of the Year balloting. “You always appreciate playing against someone you’ve (faced) for so long, like I have with James and other guys who I grew up with in California. It’s a great honor for both of us.”
Harden, however, is such a challenge that the Warriors utilize a platoon system. They’ll turn first to Andre Iguodala or Draymond Green. They’ll give Shaun Livingston a couple possessions. Stephen Curry, though outweighed by at least 35 pounds, gets the occasional chance. So, too, does Matt Barnes, now that he’s on the roster.
There’s always a plan when the Warriors see Harden and the Rockets. They’ve done a tremendous job of following it, going 17-3, counting postseason, against them since Kerr’s arrival. They’ll try to make it 18-3 on Friday night.