Slight the Warriors and they grow fangs; doubt them, and they lick their chops

Slight the Warriors and they grow fangs; doubt them, and they lick their chops

OAKLAND -- After nearly 11 months without the stimuli needed to inspire them to peak performance, the Warriors finally have it. And it’s not specifically the Houston Rockets, for they happen to be the characters sharing the stage.

As much as the Warriors want to demolish Houston in the Western Conference Finals, this is less about the Rockets than the chirping around them.

The Rockets are obsessed with the Warriors. They think they’re better than the Warriors. Some NBA observers believe the Rockets are better than the Warriors. Houston beat the Warriors twice in the regular season and, don’t forget, it has homecourt advantage.

This is the kind of stuff that drives the Warriors. Slight them and they grow fangs. Doubt them, and they lick their chops. Pour a bit of malice into their hearts, and they want to devour you.

[LISTEN: Warriors Outsiders Podcast: Western Conference Finals preview -- tension brewing for a year]

Such incentive has been absent since last spring, when the Warriors rampaged to a 16-1 postseason punctuated by a 2017 NBA Finals victory.

That was their response to the failures of the 2016 postseason, after which they were ridiculed for being the first team in league history to blow a 3-1 lead in The Finals. The Warriors played angry last postseason and only once, in Game 4 of The Finals in Cleveland, did they relent.

The Warriors may have four All-Stars, but only Kevin Durant lived that existence during his formative years. As one of the most coveted teenage recruits of the 21st century, his gifts spared him from rejection. He’s used to high expectations.

Each of the other All-Stars -- Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson --knows the feeling of being overlooked. They’ve all heard, at various times, that they weren’t quite good enough or didn’t quite measure up.

A true competitor clings to that, and all three of them hate to lose.

Here they are, once again, feeling doubted. That’s all they need, even if the doubt is mild, to polish off their machismo.

And starting this series on the road plays perfectly to script.

“Definitely,” Draymond Green says. “It's been awhile since we started out a series on the road. You kind of forget that feeling. But we're definitely looking forward to it.”

Veteran wing Andre Iguodala also sees the benefit within this new challenge. The Warriors haven’t opened a playoff series on the road since 2014, when they lost to the Clippers in seven games.

“You try to turn that into an advantage for you,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of Game 1s (at home), where we get comfortable and it takes us a little bit of time to put our foot down. We just get comfortable at home, whether it’s Game 1 or 2.

“We know we’ve got to be locked in and be ready to go on the road.”

The 2014-15 Warriors, in their first season under Steve Kerr, were furious after losing a close series in Los Angeles. It hardened them, and once they discovered the joys of winning under Kerr, they were not going to be stopped. Championship.

The 2015-16 Warriors were annoyed with so many taking shots at their title, pointing out the teams they didn’t face and injuries of their opponents. They weren’t commanding respect. So they demanded it, winning a league-record 73 games.

The 2016-17 Warriors were bitter about losing The Finals and simultaneously refreshed by the addition of Durant. The theme for that season could be distilled to two words: “Stop This.”

Which brings us to 2017-18, which began without organic incentive. The Warriors wanted to repeat. Zzzzzz. That’s a goal of every champion. They won “only” 58 games partly because of injuries but also because they waltzed through more than a dozen games. There was nothing bubbling within to generate legitimate irritation.

There is now. The road. The noise. The Rockets.

“Obviously, there was so much coverage around the league and so much attention around our league; you hear about the best teams and the best players,” Durant says of the upcoming clash of titans. “I just try to stay in the moment.”

The moment has arrived. The Warriors are favorites casting themselves as underdogs. They embrace the conditions and they look forward to turning nasty, nastier than they’ve been at any time this season.

Warriors center Jordan Bell ideal starter while DeMarcus Cousins gets healthy

Warriors center Jordan Bell ideal starter while DeMarcus Cousins gets healthy

OAKLAND -- The Warriors have indicated that, until DeMarcus Cousins is available, they plan to stay with the center-by-committee system installed two seasons ago. To generate continuity, though, they’ll need a regular starter.

If length and athleticism are the priorities, third-year 7-footer Damian Jones has the edge.

If reliability and technique are crucial, they’ll look to 6-9 Kevon Looney, who is entering his fourth season.

If sheer talent is the primary factor, it likely will be 6-9 Jordan Bell, coming off a rookie season that was by turns spectacular and disappointing.

“As long as we get it done,” coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday after practice, “it doesn’t matter to me.”

“But if somebody takes it, that’s great.”

With the NBA being a talent-first league, Bell would seem to enter training camp with a lead. He is as athletic as Jones with more court awareness, and far more athletic than Looney and also has broader skills. No center on the roster has more energy than Bell.

Then there is this: The Warriors visualize Bell as the ideal matchup for Clint Capela in Houston, the team considered most likely to deny the Warriors a fifth consecutive trip to The Finals.

Bell acquitted himself well when the teams met in the 2018 Western Conference Finals. The confidence gained from that series vaulted the University of Oregon product to a higher level when the Warriors advanced to the NBA Finals, where he was terrific.

“The Western Conference Finals was the most competitive basketball I’ve ever played,” Bell recalled. “I’ve never had to experience any competition that was that tough, where literally every single play counts.”

Bell’s says he’s a “way better basketball player” than he was as a rookie, yet his fate likely will rest on his ability to achieve consistency. He worked on that during the summer and believes that, along with the experiences of his rookie season, should be of benefit in Year 2.

Bell talks about being a better pro, defining it as “showing up on time, not making rookie mistakes. I know what the schedule is now, so I should know exactly where to be and what time to be there. And what’s expected of me.”

That’s largely a result of veteran influence. David West, now retired, was in his ear. So was Draymond Green. And there was a one-on-one conversation with Kevin Durant last April, as the team flew home from Indiana, that proved profound.

Though Kerr was impressed by Bell’s work over the summer -- he praised his hoops intellect and passing, and even gave him the green light to fire midrange jumpers -- there still is much to prove.

“He understands now how hard he has to work,” Kerr said. “It’s hard for a rookie to come in and understand what being a pro means.

“But he gets it now. I think he’s more committed than ever. He’s got to be more consistent as a player, but that starts on the practice floor every day.”

Matchups will be a factor in determining a starter. Changing the starting lineup on a regular basis requires constant adjustment for the other four starters, all of whom are All-Stars. While they’re wise enough to do that, that approach isn’t particularly sustainable.

The likely expectation is that Jones will fill the role vacated by JaVale McGee, playing 10-15 minutes off the bench along with spot starts. Looney probably will remain in a similar role, playing significant minutes some nights and not at all on others, based on the opponent.

Bell, however, is the most versatile. He offers some of what the Warriors would get from Jones and Looney. Bell is prepared to start, but hardly fixated on it.

“I want to be the guy who finishes, not the guy who starts,” he said. “That’s what I’m going for.”

Kevin Durant: 'I still gotta get better' at one thing in particular


Kevin Durant: 'I still gotta get better' at one thing in particular

Kevin Durant is ...

... really good at basketball.

I promise.

But that doesn't mean he has mastered every aspect of the game.

"I still gotta get better at setting screens and moving off the ball a little bit, but I'm glad I still got some room to grow in that area," Durant told Greg Papa on Bonta Hill on 95.7 The Game. "I played a lot of pickup ball this summer -- moreso than I ever played -- and that's something I thought about running up into screens.

"I'm like, 'Let me hit this guy now.' Whereas before, I was slipping out of screens trying to get me a shot."

[RELATED: Steph Curry's summer the best of his career, 'trajectory is still going up']

Durant is absolutely right.

It's well documented how Steph Curry does a fantastic job of setting picks (particularly back screens). In many instances, two defenders stay attached to Curry, and a teammate gets a wide open shot or dunk.

It's probably safe to assume that the Warriors' coaching staff has been talking to Durant about becoming a better screener over the past two seasons. And it sounds like he's ready to make it happen.

"It's only gonna help our team," Durant added.

Drew Shiller is the co-host of Warriors Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter @DrewShiller