LOS ANGELES — Unless the most surprisingly fun of all the first round series in these NBA playoffs throws up the ultimate shock as its final act, it won’t be long before the league’s ultimate heavyweight clash will be upon us.
The Golden State Warriors have been given all they can handle by the Los Angeles Clippers, and will head into Friday’s Game 6 at Staples Center after reflecting on Wednesday night’s home defeat – their second to the same opponent within nine days.
Yet assuming normal service is resumed and the Warriors find a way past the No. 8 seed that just won’t quit, we will soon see what is realistically the NBA’s modern version of the clash of the titans.
The Houston Rockets, spurred by James Harden’s electric offense, offer the best chance of seeing the Warriors dethroned this season, meaning that the two-time defending champions face their toughest obstacle as early as the Western Conference semifinals.
Even then, Golden State would go in as a strong favorite. But their follies and difficulties to begin these playoffs may come back to bite them.
During their current run of dominance, which began in 2015, the Warriors have benefited frequently from taking care of business with the minimum of fuss and in the shortest time frame possible. The benefits of doing so are multitude: extra rest and recuperation, less potential for injuries, an accompanying confidence boost and a growing aura of success.
Stephen Curry and the Warriors were expected to be celebrating a first-round win over the LA Clippers already. (Photo: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)
This time around they will have to do without it. The two games that the Clippers have wrested away – both at Oracle Arena – are as many as Golden State has lost in its previous four first round series, combined.
This time it is the Rockets who got over their initial hurdle with a time bonus, slipping past the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night not long before the Warriors got themselves in trouble against the marvelous Clippers, whose stomach for a battle is seemingly endless.
“We seemed to take it for granted that we were going to be OK” head coach Steve Kerr said. “But this Clippers team has been scrapping and clawing all year. I knew they weren’t going to go down without a fight.”
Golden State needs a burst of energy just to get out of the series, with Stephen Curry not at his best, Kevin Durant carrying a huge workload, Klay Thompson currently hit or miss, while Draymond Green’s physicality has been matched by the Clippers troupe of tough guys. Meanwhile the Rockets now have the luxury of knowing they won’t have to lace up again until at least Sunday.
NBA teams are no stranger to grueling schedules. Indeed, the league fixture list itself is a slog of epic proportions and infinite air miles. However, remembering how close it was the last time the teams met and any perceptible advantage could be worth its weight in freshness.
A year ago, in the conference finals, the Rockets led 3-2 before Chris Paul got struck down with an untimely injury and Golden State squeezed out the latest in its litany of recent success. The sense that Houston may have been hardened by the experience seems real.
If the Warriors’ run is to end this year, it probably ends here. In their race to continue one of basketball’s great streaks of success, they have given up a significant head start.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Martin Rogers on Twitter @RogersJourno
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