NBA Playoffs: Warriors-Rockets showdown seems more certain than ever after second-round openers

HOUSTON -- It's silly to look at the first game of a playoff series and draw many big conclusions from it. The NBA playoffs is all about feeling out your opponent and making adjustments over the long haul. Look no further than the first round of these playoffs, when Paul George and Oklahoma City came out firing at home and controlled Game 1 against the Utah Jazz from start to finish, only to get dominated in the next three games and eventually lose to the Jazz in six.  

And yet, after this weekend's opening volleys in the Western Conference semifinals, it's hard to come to any conclusion other than this: That we are heading toward a Houston Rockets-Golden State Warriors Western Conference finals, which is the series we've been expecting in the West all season.

There was plenty of concern going in that the streaking New Orleans Pelicans could give the Warriors -- an injury-dampened team that hasn't nearly displayed this season the greatness we've come to expect from them the past three years -- a run for their money. But in game one on Saturday, the Warriors romped, 123-101, with Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson scoring 26 and 27 points, respectively, and Draymond Green producing a triple-double that had him once again looking like the glue that's held this Warriors dynasty together. You may think that Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and crew could certainly still make a series of it. But then I'll remind you what Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said after the game about two-time MVP Steph Curry's return from injury for game two: "He's going to play, barring a setback in the next couple of days." 

I feel comfortable risking a future shout-out from @OldTakesExposed and proclaiming the Warriors soon-to-be winners of this series. 

And in Houston on Sunday afternoon, we saw exactly what happens when James Harden plays like James Harden. In the first round against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Harden was hit or miss. Between the beginning of Game 2 and halftime of Game 4, Harden had his worst shooting stretch of the season. And then, in the third quarter of Game 4, Harden went off for 22 points, part of a 50-point third-quarter barrage that nearly set a playoff record and tore out the Timberwolves' soul. We saw more of that Harden on Sunday against a Utah defense that, when healthy, is the NBA's finest: 41 points on 7-of-12 3-point shooting, plus eight rebounds and seven assists.

The key phrase when describing that dominant Utah defense, though, is this: "When healthy." In Game 6 of the emotionally draining series against Oklahoma City, starting point guard Ricky Rubio tweaked his hamstring and missed the rest of the game. He's expected to be out up to 10 days; 10 days from the day the injury was announced is May 8, which would be when Game 5 would be played in Houston.

The Jazz are great, one of the best stories in the NBA this season, but the truth is they need to all be healthy and all be playing their best basketball to upset the Rockets. Make no mistake: They can do it. They have one of the NBA's brilliant coaching minds in Quin Snyder; they have a top-two defensive big man in Rudy Gobert; they have an electric rookie in Donovan Mitchell who is coming off a historic first-round series; they have a knockdown 3-point artist in Joe Ingles, a big man in Derrick Favors who has undergone a mid-career renaissance this season, and a few very useful role players in Jae Crowder, Royce O'Neale and Alec Burks.

And yet, to stop the NBA's best regular-season team without having their starting point guard on the floor, and when Trevor Ariza is playing lockdown defense on Mitchell? 

Pfffffft.

Ain't gonna happen.

Especially when Harden is playing at MVP level. 

Just listen to Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni, who was brimming with confidence after a game the Rockets led from the second minute until the very end:

"He's that good," D'Antoni said of Harden. "Just what he does with these step-backs -- he's 7-of-12 from 3, I don't know how you guard that, I don't know how you guard him getting to the rim, his passing ability. He's got so many ways to beat you. He's one of the best. Their defense is super, but James is James."

And when Harden and Chris Paul are both on like they were on Sunday?

"We're really hard to beat," D'Antoni said. "I don't want to say unbeatable, obviously, but those two guys are stellar on offense. We just have a nice balance, and we've got two of the best point guards in the world."

Stopping those two (not to mention big man Clint Capela, who was excellent on both ends, and not to mention the bevy of shooters who surround Harden and Paul) is a near-impossible ask of any team -- even one with as stellar of a defense as the Jazz.

"For the most part I'm going to do what I do," Harden said afterward. "We've seen it -- we've seen it pretty much all, all year."

And then trying to stop them without your starting point guard, who is the tip of the spear of your defensive attack and who keeps the ball moving on offense?

I don't want to say impossible, obviously.

But it's pretty close.

"I thought initially it's like jumping in ice-cold water," Snyder said of playing without Rubio. "You have a moment where it's frigid and then you kind of begin to get used to it a little bit, and settle in. I kind of anticipated that from a lot of our guys, not because of the moment or the game, just because of the competition and how unique Houston is. I thought Dante (Exum), Raul (Neto), Alec, Donovan having to play more of the point -- it's going to have to be communal from us. Guys can't be tentative. And I thought as the game progressed we kind of settled in."

Here's where I'm obligated to throw in the official sportswriter hedge: Of course the Jazz can beat the Rockets in this series, and of course the Pelicans can beat the Warriors in their series. Nothing is preordained in sports. You still have to play the games. Crazy things can happen, especially when you have an all-world player like Anthony Davis, or an all-world defense like the Jazz. Throw in a couple more sports clichés here if you'd like.

But come on. What D'Antoni came close to saying in the postgame press conference before he pulled back is that when the Rockets are playing like this, they're unbeatable in a seven-game series, especially against a less-talented team like the Jazz. And when the Warriors are playing like this -- especially once they get the heart and soul of their team back in Steph Curry -- they're unbeatable in a seven-game series, especially against a less-talented team like the Pelicans.

What we saw in the opening games of the Western Conference semifinals should only buttress what we've thought since the beginning of the season: In two weeks, the only teams left in the West will be the Rockets and the Warriors. 

And it will be glorious: Two uber-talented, incredibly well-coached teams who should be playing at the height of their powers. At that point, everything will be up in the air.

But at this point? Nope. It's not.

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