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.
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.