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Warriors-Rockets rivalry as we know it is officially over

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After years of routine postseason devastation administered by the Warriors, not much resolve was left within the Rockets, and what little remained was unceremoniously flicked into the trash bin Saturday night.

The years of Houston as a legitimate NBA championship contender are over after being ousted from the Western Conference semifinals by the Los Angeles Lakers. It took five games and the closeout game was predictably decisive, the Rockets gulping down a 119-96 defeat.

Although the final blows to James Harden and Co. as a threat were delivered by LeBron James, the Lakers superstar basically buried a team already afflicted with battered-franchise syndrome courtesy of Stephen Curry and the Warriors.

If Harden had been able to overcome Curry even once in the postseason, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey would have gotten over his acknowledged obsession with beating the Warriors. Might have brought a championship to Houston.

Never happened. The Warriors are 4-0 against Houston in the postseason, with a cumulative record of 16-7.

And in a year when Curry and the Warriors are not an obstacle, the Rockets ran into LeBron and a revivified Lakers squad, which extended Houston’s postseason despair to eight consecutive playoff appearances without a trip to The Finals.

It’s an indictment of Morey, a devout believer in advanced analytics, hitching his hopes to Harden, who has been allergic to adjustments and never has grasped the truism of the playoffs being a completely different game than the regular season.

For all the talk of Harden’s scoring skills, this should extinguish any argument for him as anything more than a regular-season dynamo.

 

The twin threads that run through those Houston teams are, who took over as GM in 2007, and Harden, who was acquired in an October 2012 trade with Oklahoma City. In the years since Harden’s arrival, Houston has changed ownership, from Leslie Alexander to Tilman Fertitta. It has changed coaches, from Kevin McHale to Mike D’Antoni. The Rockets were desperate enough in 2018 to bring an assistant coach, defensive specialist Jeff Bzdelik, out of retirement.

Since adding Harden, Morey’s search for success has compelled him to make a staggering 36 trades. The GM has changed Harden’s co-stars, from Dwight Howard to Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook. Indeed, Harden is the only player remaining from the roster that lost to the Warriors in the 2015 Western Conference finals.

That ’15 team, built around Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, Howard and Harden, fell to the Warriors in five games, with Curry averaging 31.2 points on 51.5-percent shooting, including 49.1 percent from deep – numbers superior to those of Harden.

The teams, mostly the same rosters, met in the first round of the 2016 playoffs. The Warriors won in five. A tweaked ankle limited Curry to parts of two games, which the Warriors won by a combined 53 points. Curry lasted only 20 minutes in Game 1, scoring 24 points in a 104-78 rout that set the tone for the series.

Two years later, the Rockets confronted the Warriors in the Western Conference finals with a much different cast. They’d added a shooter, Eric Gordon. They’d added P.J. Tucker, a rottweiler in a bowling ball physique. They’d also added future Hall of Famer Chris Paul, a classic lead guard. Harden had a crew. He also had homecourt advantage.

The Warriors won in seven, outscoring Houston 58-38 in the second half of Game 7 at Toyota Center. Both Kevin Durant and Curry handily outplayed Harden, who shot 24.4 percent from beyond the arc.

The Rockets labored on, though, facing the Warriors a year later in the conference semifinals. For once, Harden had a considerably better series than Curry – until Game 6. After a scoreless first half, Curry poured in 33 points in 22 second-half minutes, leading a fourth-quarter comeback that would leave Houston in pieces.

As Curry was strolling into the locker room screaming in delight, bound for a fifth consecutive trip to The Finals, Harden was left to quietly contemplate yet another postseason banishment.

It’s the same feeling, only this time the Rockets were victimized by the Lakers.

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It’s quite possible the Warriors and Rockets will reconvene in the 2021 playoffs. Why not? It’s practically a tradition. Both teams will have made some changes; Houston, with Fertitta bleeding money from his primary business, is bracing for sweeping change.

There is no recent postseason opponent the Warriors enjoyed beating more than Houston. Knocking the Rockets out next season, should they meet, can’t possibly be as satisfying as it was before.