OAKLAND – The Warriors are disappointed and perhaps even infuriated that Rockets star James Harden, diagnosed with a cervical neck strain, is listed as questionable for the game Saturday at Oracle Arena.
They want Harden. The Warriors so badly want to confront him that they are practically praying he’ll be upgraded to available before the 5:35 tipoff. They want all the Rockets, but Harden’s presence is particularly significant.
As much as the Warriors want to be the team that halts Harden’s streak of 32 consecutive games with at least 30 points, they also have a score to settle.
The last time the Warriors faced Harden, he drained a buzzer-beating 3-pointer over the tight defense of Draymond Green and Klay Thompson to give the Rockets a 135-134 victory, in overtime, at Oracle Arena. When the shot went through, Harden stood and began staring and jawing toward Green.
That game, on Jan. 3, probably is the most exasperating of the Warriors’ 16 losses this season. The locker room was simmered with anger, some directed toward Harden but most of it toward themselves for blowing a 20-point second-half lead.
That was the team’s third loss in five games and it happened to be Houston, the closest thing the Warriors have to a real rival. And Harden, the reigning MVP, the man who has made an art of baiting defenders and officials, had plunged the dagger.
“James hit that shot and, obviously, that can be frustrating,” Green said late Thursday night. “But that happens. He’s a great scorer. He hit a tough shot over Klay and I. We’ll live with that.
“But we had a lead in that game and we allowed ourselves to be in that position. When you allow that to happen, anything can happen and it did.”
The residual hostility may have been the best thing to happen to the Warriors this season. The champs checked themselves, rededicated and won the next 11 games – their longest streak in 13 months – by an average margin of 17.5 points.
The defense turned up, as did the assist totals. The turnover count came down. Though not typically a strong rebounding team, the Warriors posted advantages in nine of the 11 games. There was a tip-to-horn 31-point win at Denver, a comeback victory in which they wiped out a 17-point deficit.
The Warriors were hungrier. They were, at times, downright ruthless.
“Losing bothers us,” Green said. “It don’t really matter if it’s against Houston or anybody else. We don’t like to lose. That’s part of the reason we don’t lose much. At that point of the season, we were losing a lot. And we knew we had to get it turned around. And we have.”
Three postseason series in the past four years – most recently a stressful seven-game 2018 Western Conference Finals – have brought additional heat to games between the Warriors and Rockets. As the only current Houston player to start every game in all series, Harden symbolizes the enemy. When he succeeds against the Warriors it’s considerably more annoying than if it were, say, San Antonio’s LaMarcus Aldridge or Portland’s Damian Lillard.
So, yes, the Warriors want a piece of Harden every time they see him. He’s openly campaigning for a second consecutive MVP award and the Rockets are 21-11 during his streak. Primary running mates Chris Paul and Clint Capela, who missed much of the past two months, are back.
“We understand how talented they are, how well James has been playing,” Stephen Curry said. “I know they lost (Thursday), but it’s going to be a dogfight. We understand the momentum that we have been able to build, it’s going to be a defensive test for us.”
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The Warriors are 17-2 since Harden’s epic game-winner. Their offensive rating has been 4.5 points better than any other team. They’ve been playing their best ball, and they’d like to give Harden and the Rockets a taste of it.
If Harden can’t go, the lights on the marquee won’t be as bright. The Warriors’ fury might drop a notch, but it’s conceivable the sight of Chris Paul and those red and white jerseys will be enough to inflame proceedings.