OAKLAND -- As the Warriors prepare to face Houston in the Western Conference semifinals, the biggest unknown about these Rockets will come to the surface only if they face elimination.
That’s when all of Houston will turn its eyes toward leading MVP candidate James Harden and future Hall of Famer Chris Paul, pleading for them to save the championship hopes.
Neither guard has a history of doing that, but that was when they were on different teams. This is their first year as teammates.
“Chris is the obvious difference in their team now,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Thursday after practice. “They’ve been really good for the last few years, but he gives them a new dimension. He’s a great player, one of the best in the league and a future Hall of Famer. So we have to account for what he does.
“He’s different from James. They attack in different ways. But they’re both ball-dominant and very effective with what they do.”
Just because Harden and Paul haven’t crushed the title hopes of others doesn’t mean they can’t. That’s the mentality the Warriors are taking, and it’s the right one.
“Those two guards, there’s no stopping them by yourself,” Klay Thompson said. “They’re going to get their numbers. But you don’t want James and CP or James Harden to have a huge game because that usually indicates they’re going to win.”
Harden and Paul have played a combined 184 postseason games, and neither has ever gone into summer feeling the glow of triumph. Moreover, no two players of their elite status and experience have consistently felt more graceless dismissals.
Paul is in his 13th season and this is his first trip to the conference finals. Until Houston’s win over Utah on Monday, Paul’s 85 postseason games without reaching the final four were the most in the league.
The Clippers built around DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin and Paul. With Paul as the veteran leader, they had promise. The three All-Stars were together for five seasons and never once got past the second round.
Paul’s most recent elimination game was last spring, when the Clippers lost to Utah in Game 7 of the conference semifinals. Paul shot 52.6 percent over the first six games, and then faded to 31.6 percent (6-of-19) in the Game 7 loss.
Yet the most startling dismissal of those Clippers came in 2015. They took a 3-1 series lead over Houston and then lost three straight, including Game 6 in LA after building a 19-point lead late in the third quarter.
It’s not that Paul’s postseason metrics are bad. It’s that he has not fared well when faced with elimination.
Harden has been considerably worse. He is both undeniably skilled and exceedingly vulnerable to shrinking from the big moment.
It was Harden, an MVP candidate last season, who submitted a zombie performance in his last elimination game. After averaging 29.1 points in the regular season, he scored 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting and committed six turnovers in Game 6 against the Spurs. Who can forget the sight of him sitting on the bench in the final minutes, holding a stare as vacant as an empty gym?
He was worse against the Warriors during the 2015 Western Conference Finals. The Warriors won in five games, and Harden’s Game 5 meltdown was flabbergasting. He had 14 points on 2-of-11 shooting and 12 turnovers, an NBA record.
Again, this is not to say that Harden and Paul can’t summon greatness in the clutch but to acknowledge that they generally have not.
“If we play too lax and lazy with these guys,” Kevin Durant said, “they can burn you because they’re great one-on-one scorers.”
The most important factor for the Warriors will be disallowing either one to get into a rhythm -- especially Harden, who is as good as any offensive player in the league.
“You don’t want to foul him because he gets there the most of anybody in the NBA,” Thompson said. “But that’s easier said than done. Don’t give him too many passing lanes, because he’s also a great assist man. And just close his airspace because when he’s doing his thing with his dribble, he’s so hard to stop when he’s comfortable.”
What’s different is that Harden and Paul have not been teammates until this season. When the Rockets traded for Paul, a traditional point guard, there was legitimate reason to wonder if he could play alongside Harden, who tends to control the ball.
The Harden-Paul backcourt succeeded in the regular season, wildly so when they were sharing the court with center Clint Capela. The Rockets are 50-5 when all three are in the lineup.
The postseason is a different beast. There is no knowing how Harden and Paul will respond as teammates when faced with the prospect of elimination. The Warriors simply want to put them there.