Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr wasn’t at all boasting — or at least didn’t seem to be — when he was asked Thursday about whether he was worried that the Houston Rockets’ hunger for an elusive NBA Finals appearance would be a problem for his team in their Western Conference finals matchup. Kerr’s team, you see, has something Houston doesn’t.
“No, I like where we are. Our guys have rings,” he said, referencing the two NBA titles the Warriors won over the previous three seasons.
“That’s a good position to be in,” Kerr continued. “To me, the hardest championship is the first one, as an individual player and as a team, because you don’t know — you don’t quite know if you can do it.
“Once you get the first one, there’s a little bit of house money. But you want it again because it’s an unbelievable feeling. I like our position. We’re going to go in here knowing we’re the defending champs, knowing we got a couple of championships here the last few years. Let’s go get another one. It’s a nice feeling to have and to go into a series with.”
Golden State has five players — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and Shaun Livingston — who each have appeared in three straight NBA Finals. Kevin Durant has appeared in two (one of them with the Thunder). The Rockets’ players have a combined three Finals appearances, the last coming six years ago when James Harden and Oklahoma City lost to the Miami Heat in five games. Trevor Ariza has the other two, as a seldom-used reserve for the Lakers in 2008 and a starter in 2009. Chris Paul, whom Kerr called “a killer, one of the great competitors in the league,” has played in 86 career playoffs games but will be making his conference finals debut when the series begins on Monday night.
For all their accolades, both Harden and Paul have wilted when the postseason lights burn hottest: in elimination games. Playing with the Clippers last season, Paul shot 52.6 percent over the first six games in the Western Conference semifinals against the Jazz but then made only 6 of 19 shots in a Game 7 loss. Two years earlier, he was on the court when the Clippers surrendered a 3-1 series lead against the Rockets, losing Game 6 after compiling a 19-point third-quarter lead. Harden’s dates with infamy came last year in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Spurs, when he scored 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting and committed six turnovers, and in Game 5 of the 2015 Western Conference finals against the Warriors, when he had 14 points on 2-of-11 shooting and an NBA-record 12 turnovers.
The Warriors obviously aren’t thinking about any of that, even if they have a certain level of confidence that comes with playoff success.
“If we play too lax and lazy with these guys,” Durant said, “they can burn you because they’re great one-on-one scorers.”