SAN FRANCISCO -- It is, on nearly every level, a mismatch designed for sheer humiliation. The lottery-bound Warriors with their top guns out of service, trying to stare down the title-or-bust Rockets coming in with their weapons ablaze.
Houston general manager Daryl Morey, admittedly obsessed with beating the Warriors, couldn’t be blamed if under these circumstances he were to reach out and offer a holiday hug to the cuddly Dubs his team will see on Christmas Day at Chase Center.
There will be a total absence of the crackling intensity and mutual loathing that for years has made these games a feast for the eyes and ears. We’re going to miss that blood feud.
And yet, this is one of those games -- and they will be rare this season -- for which a Warriors victory would register on the Richter scale. A win would send Dub Nation floating into 2020 and be relived for decades to come.
Though LeBron James is Enemy No. 1 among Warriors fans, the amount of heat tossed his way can’t begin to match that thrown at the detested combination of James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Putting the boot to the backsides of two villains always trumps thumping one.
There is a path to victory. Houston is 10 days removed from losing at home to the Pistons and 15 days removed from losing at home to the Kings. The Warriors, at present, are a tick below Detroit and Sacramento – and a dozen levels below where they were over the previous five years.
“Well, all of the guys we used to put on James Harden are no longer there to put on James Harden,” coach Steve Kerr said late Monday night. “So, we will have to try some new guys.”
Instead of a backcourt featuring Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, conceivably the most explosive guard duo in NBA history, Kerr will roll out D’Angelo Russell and Damion Lee. Instead of All-World forward Kevin Durant, you get Eric Paschall or Glenn Robinson III. Instead of Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, it’s Alec Burks and Jacob Evans III.
There are very valid reasons for the Warriors being heavy underdogs. The competitive inequality; the Warriors are 7-25, the Rockets 21-9. The disparity in experience; the Warriors have two playoff vets, the Rockets eight. And, too, there is the national spotlight that blisters some while putting jet fuel in others.
There is only so much that the savviest of Warriors, Draymond Green, can do to prepare his teammates for the gravity and atmosphere that come with participating in the NBA showcase that is Christmas Day.
“Just try to help them with tendencies,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you’ve just got to go out there and play. Don’t worry about the stage. It’s still a basketball game.”
Green pointed out the need for video study, which would reveal Harden’s proclivity for baiting defenders into reach fouls, Westbrook’s penchant for getting reckless when frustrated, Clint Capela’s pursuit of lobs to slam and P.J. Tucker’s success in making 3-pointers exclusively from the corners.
It’s a lot to process for the Warriors, who show signs of learning, particularly on defense. For example, when they played the Timberwolves on Nov. 8 in Minneapolis, they neglected the basic fact that Andrew Wiggins wants to go right. Always. So, he went for 40 points on 17-of-33 shooting, burying the Warriors.
On Monday night, Wiggins saw a more spirited and aware defense, one more determined to cut off his comfort zone. He scored 22 points on 10-of-27 shooting. The Warriors won by nine.
It goes back to the scout’s axiom: Know Your Personnel, aka KYP.
“We’ve seen them already earlier in the season, so we know what they are about,” Kerr said. “Russell Westbrook is playing a lot better now that he is more comfortable with the group. They seem to be hitting their stride, so we know it’s going to be a tough game. It will be a fun, fun challenge and our guys are really looking forward to it.”
The Warriors’ most surprising win this season came seven weeks ago, when they clobbered the Trail Blazers, 127-118, at Chase Center. It was their first win in the wake of losing Curry to a broken hand. The Blazers were 3-3 at the time, but their losses were to 2019 playoff teams.
Few saw that win coming, and the Warriors haven’t relished another quite as joyfully. It was fool’s gold, but it provided temporary hope that this season wouldn’t be as bad as feared.
It is now. A win on Christmas is unlikely but not impossible. This time around, it would provide lasting satisfaction in a season for which everyone accepts as giant step toward next October.