Can the Houston Rockets take advantage of a Warriors-less Playoffs ?

James Harden enters a legacy-defining game 7 tonight

The second round of the NBA playoffs are beginning to pick up steam, with just one series (Rockets vs Thunder) still lingering in the opening stanza. Tonight, we will be treated to two games that promise to be visceral battles on court (and the internet).

Both games will air on ESPN.

In the first game, we get game 2 in a hotly contested battle for the heart and soul of the Eastern Conference. While the defending champion Toronto Raptors have their own problems, it is the league’s MVP, Giannis Sina Ugo Antetokounmpo, that finds himself under a spotlight. After an early exit in last year’s playoffs, the Bucks had a tough first game against the pesky defense and veteran savvy of the Miami Heat.

As we wrote earlier, this Heat team has given the Bucks trouble during the regular season:

The Bucks have been intimidating in part because of Antetokounmpo’s downhill physicality, as the reigning MVP can bully his way through most players in the NBA. But the Heat have an imposing wall of defense with cagy wings like Butler and Andre Iguodala swarming like fighter jets, anchored by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Bam Adebayo.

James Harden enters game 7 against Chris Paul and the Thunder with his legacy on the line

The Golden State Warriors dynasty has crushed many, many dreams. So there’s no real shame in the Houston Rockets’ inability to get past a team that has dominated the league for the past 5 years.

Now?

Without Golden State in the playoffs, along with a number of top tier talents (like Kevin Durant) this seems like it would be the year for James Harden and his Houston Rockets to get that ring they believe they so richly deserve, here’s General Manager Daryl Morey’s thoughts on it:

"Basketball pressure wise, it's a lot. Two of the greatest players ever on our team, we should win this thing"

“Should?”

Princess Bride Dummy GIF - PrincessBride Dummy Umm GIFs

Don't worry about what goes on at the top of things - until you get there

The jump from good - or even elite - to Champion is one that few teams are ever able to make. This was at the core of the sentiment when Durant literally laughed at CJ McCollum’s claim that the Portland Trailblazers were in the running for a title.

It’s cold, but look at the entire exchange; Durant has an innate understanding of the reality that every up and coming team has to ignore. Namely, the “favorite” team tends to be that way for a reason. It’s not just about the best players on your team, well it is… but it goes well beyond that too:

For the record, the Warriors would ironically go on to sweep the Blazers that year. Playing without an injured Kevin Durant.

The Rockets are seeing this year as the one where they can finally avoid the Warriors, a team that has knocked them out of the playoffs five of the last six years. It’s a chance to build their legacy, or further cement their role as runner up.

But man… what if they don’t make it?

Daniel Hardee visited this issue earlier this year, and it’s worth another look now - be sure to listen closely for the backup vocals.

Although there isn’t much room for nuance in a conversation like this, it’s important to note that James Harden is definitely very good at basketball. While there’s no shame in never reaching the very top of the mountain, a lack of success in the Playoffs can be the perpetual foil that critics will deploy in any discussion of Harden’s place among the current pantheon of basketball greats.

Going to be a fun day!