Repeat after me: The Rockets could upset the Warriors. You’ve heard that sentiment before. This season, last season, the one before that. From podcasts, from your uncle in Houston, from your own inner monologue. “The Rockets could beat the Warriors” is an opinion somewhere between brave and foolish—this is known as a take—hedged with word choice; they could beat Golden State, just as Kobe Bryant could coach the Lakers or Zion Williamson could stay another year at Duke.
See, Houston has made fools of men before. Burned them. Once, legend has it, 27 times over. But if you’re looking for certitude to place in the Rockets, and in the idea that they could soon be champions, hold dear this image from their 118-98 Game 2 win against the Jazz on Wednesday, a shot that followed James Harden literally shaking his defender out of the frame:
A picture breaks a thousand ankles. And the video is pretty good, too.
Though this happened two minutes into the game (thoughts and prayers to Ricky Rubio, whose life was spared only because Harden’s shot didn’t go in), Harden standing alone later felt symbolic of Houston’s place in the West through the conclusion of Game 2s. Denver and San Antonio have both lost one; Utah and Oklahoma City are down two; Portland, though more convincing than ever through two wins, still isn’t at Houston’s threat level. And Golden State, well, Golden State blew a 31-point lead, the largest in playoff history, against Los Angeles on Monday.
But the context of a historically bad Warriors loss isn’t really necessary for full confidence in the Rockets. It helps Houston’s case, sure, but so does Harden logging the third playoff triple-double of his career (32 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists), or P.J. Tucker’s four 3s and Clint Capela’s three blocks, or a 20-point win despite Chris Paul’s shot not falling, and the fact that every Rocket who logged more than 11 minutes made it to the line on Wednesday. The Rockets ousted the Jazz last postseason, as it seems they soon will during these playoffs, but on shakier terms. They lost that Game 2 at home—this time, no intensity was lost. Houston no longer seems as prone to play up or down to an opponent thanks to Harden, who no longer seems prone to playing any way but out of his mind. Utah was never close; at the end of the first quarter, the Rockets had 39 points, the Jazz had 19, and Harden had 17. (It’s worth mentioning that Utah’s defensive strategy—one that Milwaukee employed this season—might’ve helped Harden more than it limited him; in an effort to deter Harden from going left, the defense essentially gave the reigning MVP open looks to the right, which he easily turned into floaters and lobs. It didn’t work in Game 1, and, to no one’s surprise, it didn’t in Game 2, either.)
Keeping Round 1 as brief as possible is best for the Rockets for reasons other than keeping focus. If they advance, and if the Warriors beat the Clippers, a Western Conference finals rematch between the two would happen in Round 2. Blowouts like games 1 and 2 against the Jazz will only keep Houston fresh: Harden played 33 minutes in both games, while injury-prone CP3 averaged even fewer. For the Rockets, there’s less of a gap between could and will than ever before.