Stephen Curry Leads Warriors Past James Harden, Rockets Without Kevin Durant

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistMarch 14, 2019

Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry, center, shoots as Houston Rockets' Gerald Green (14) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, March 13, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The Golden State Warriors defeated the Houston Rockets for the first time in four tries this season with a 106-104 victory on Wednesday at the Toyota Center.

The two-time defending champions snapped Houston's nine-game winning streak and took a step toward breaking out of a slump that saw them go 4-6 in their previous 10 contests. Golden State is now 4.5 games ahead of Houston after prevailing in the 2018 Western Conference Finals rematch.

Klay Thompson (30 points and six rebounds) and Stephen Curry (24 points and five assists) provided much of the offense with Kevin Durant sidelined with an ankle injury. DeMarcus Cousins was also brilliant, challenging for a triple-double with 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.

James Harden notched a double-double for Houston with 29 points and 10 assists but was just 2-of-12 from three-point range as a late comeback fell short. The Rockets were down 10 points with less than three minutes remaining and climbed within one but were unable to corral a loose ball after Harden missed a free throw down two to end the game.

             

DeMarcus Cousins' Play More Important for Warriors Than Wins and Losses Before Playoffs

A rough stretch with the playoffs approaching would mean panic time for a number of teams. After all, squads are supposed to hit their stride by this time of year—like the Rockets have—and use the momentum to springboard into a deep playoff run.

The Warriors are not most teams.

Golden State has been to four straight NBA Finals and lifted the Larry O'Brien Trophy three times in that span. It is human nature to take the foot off the gas pedal during the regular season under those circumstances, and the Warriors provided a reminder of just how dangerous they can be with this win on the road without Durant and a 17-point win over the second-seeded Denver Nuggets on Friday.

Home-court advantage isn't as important to the Warriors as most because a team that can trot out Curry, Durant, Thompson, Cousins and Draymond Green in crunch time is capable of winning anywhere.

Capable of winning anywhere, that is, as long as Cousins resembles the four-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA selection he was before joining the Warriors rather than a liability who can be exploited on the defensive side.

Cousins entered Wednesday's game with a net rating of minus-0.4, which stands in stark contrast to the team's plus-6.7 mark when he's off the court, per NBA.com.

He has struggled at times to defend pick-and-rolls when forced to switch onto quicker ball-handlers. Offensively, he hasn't always been able to keep up when the Warriors break out into transition and start firing the ball around the perimeter to create open shots.

In fairness to Cousins, he is coming off a significant Achilles injury and surely needed time to adjust. He was often the focal point of the attack on the Sacramento Kings and as a No. 2 option on the New Orleans Pelicans but is playing with far more talent than he is accustomed to on this Warriors team.

Golden State made a point of running its offense through him for extended stretches in Wednesday's contest, and he responded by facilitating from the high post, battling for rebounds and demonstrating a soft touch around the rim while shooting 11-of-16 from the field.

The emphasis on feeding him the ball appeared to be a nod by the Warriors that they understand how important he can be with the playoffs approaching. While he has been the starting lineup's one glaring weak spot at times this season, he made significant strides against one of the NBA's best teams.

If Cousins starts to resemble the version of himself that was so dominant on the Kings, the rest of the league doesn't have a chance.

          

Eric Gordon Is Right About Rockets Despite Loss

Wednesday's frantic comeback in the final minutes was another reminder that Houston is not intimidated by the champs, even if the team fell just short.

As if that weren't enough evidence the Rockets are confident in the matchup, Eric Gordon told Marc Stein of the New York Times on Tuesday, "I really do believe there's no other team but us that can really have a chance against them."

He's exactly right.

The reality is NBA fans and analysts are a Chris Paul hamstring injury away from potentially discussing the Warriors as the challengers and Rockets as champions. After all, Houston was ahead 3-2 in last season's Western Conference Finals before he suffered the hamstring injury, and the team lost the final two games without him.

The Rockets proved that series wasn't a fluke by going 3-1 against the Warriors this season, winning one with Harden sidelined and another with Paul out.

They simply match up with the Warriors better than most as well, with Paul as a nine-time All-Defensive selection who can chase Curry around the perimeter and Harden as someone who can target either No. 30 or Cousins in pick-and-rolls.

Getting Curry caught in those situations forces the two-time MVP to work on the defensive end, while creating one-on-ones with Cousins means Harden can use his quickness to either attack the basket or unleash his patented step-back three.

Clint Capela is also capable of handling Cousins on the blocks and competing on the glass, giving the Rockets an interior presence even with much of their offense coming from the outside.

Golden State is the juggernaut that is most likely to win another championship, but the Rockets are better-equipped to steal the crown than any other team in the league.

              

What's Next?

The Rockets host the Phoenix Suns on Friday, while the Warriors are at the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday.

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