Warriors sharpen their playoff focus with challenge of facing Rockets in conference finals

Steve Kerr absentmindedly stretched his back as he recalled being a player on one of the greatest teams in NBA history and the malaise that can come with too much greatness.

The Golden State Warriors' coach stood not far from the banners in the team's practice facility, and he explained how spent the Chicago Bulls were by the end of the 1997-98 season, their third consecutive championship year. He knew, because of that experience, this year would be one of his most challenging coaching this group of Warriors.


"Everything all three years had been so fresh and exciting," Kerr told The Times. "And this year it suddenly became boring and old."

Then the playoffs arrived and the giants awoke. The Warriors beat their first two playoff opponents each in five games, and now they will travel to meet a team that has spent all summer and all season preparing for this. The Houston Rockets, who also cruised into the Western Conference finals, spent the regular season dominating opponents and securing the best record in the NBA.

"They have made it known that their team is built to beat us," Warriors forward Draymond Green said. "Kind of their, like you said, their obsession or whatever you want to call it. … Obviously you want to build your team to beat the defending champs because that's usually [the way] you've got to go to get a championship."

The Rockets' last taste of the conference finals was a bitter one. After recovering from a 3-1 deficit in order to beat the Clippers in seven games in the 2015 conference semifinals, Houston ran into the Warriors' buzz saw. Golden State throttled the Rockets on their way to their first of three consecutive Finals appearances.

The Warriors won the championship that season, when Kerr missed 43 games as he dealt with back pain, which resulted because of complications from back surgery. Luke Walton, then a Golden State assistant, guided the Warriors to a 39-4 record during Kerr's absence.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr talks to All-Star forward Draymond Green during a game against the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr talks to All-Star forward Draymond Green during a game against the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

The Rockets faced the Warriors in the first round the next year and met a familiar end, losing that series in five games too.

They didn't make it to the Warriors last postseason, losing in the second round to the San Antonio Spurs, who were dispatched by the Warriors in four games in the conference finals. Something had to change.

Synergy greeted the Rockets last summer. Chris Paul, then with the Clippers, and Rockets star James Harden wanted to play together and Houston set to work making it happen.

"We put all the eggs in one basket," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "If it didn't work, we were in big — I was in big trouble anyway."

He wondered how the personalities of two superstar players would mesh but felt optimistic. He knew in part their games complemented each other. He also felt encouraged because they weren't two players thrown together by management.

"When they're the ones who initiated all of this to happen, then that was almost a sure thing it was going to work," D'Antoni said.

As the Rockets strutted through the season, finishing with a 65-17 record, the Warriors plodded through theirs. It wasn't all their fault. The boredom along with injuries slowed the Warriors' progress.

"After the All-Star break we had a couple games where right out the gate we were locked in, we were focused," Warriors veteran Andre Iguodala said during a quiet moment in an enclave in the Warriors' locker room.

He was talking about a seven-game winning streak the Warriors produced after the All-Star game. They then went 3-7 in their next 10 as injuries beset their four All-Stars: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Green.


"Then Steph goes down," Iguodala said. "Then KD goes down. Draymond goes down. Klay breaks his finger. Before you know it we just gotta be healthy and get rest just to start the playoffs. So then games become meaningless as far as wins and losses. We actually played well throughout the stretch, we just weren't winning. So everybody's got this dark cloud over us."

This season, for the first time since Kerr became their head coach, Golden State lost more than 20 games. Before Kerr's arrival, the Warriors lost at least 20 games in every season of their franchise's history. That goes back to their time in Philadelphia.

There were times when Kerr wondered if the focus would return in time for the playoffs. He wondered if their defense would improve to the level it would need to be in order to win the conference again. He saw the energy from players like Quinn Cook and Jordan Bell, to whom much of this was new. But he needed it from the team as a whole.

As if a hypnotist had snapped his fingers, the Warriors' intensity ignited on April 11, the day they learned their first-round opponent would be the Spurs. In film sessions Kerr saw their intensity shift, led by Iguodala and Green. He saw the alertness they lacked at times during the regular season. In practice, Cook was amazed.

"I'd never seen a team just so focused," Cook said. "These guys seem like they don't get tired of being great. Our leaders remind us of that all the time. Steph, Kevin, Draymond. 'Don't get tired of being great.'"

That's an easier message when the stakes are high. Kerr described his first season with the team as a "joy ride." In his second the Warriors felt the thrill of chasing history as they finished with an NBA-record 73 regular-season wins before losing to Cleveland in the Finals. Last season was their first year with Durant, and they joined with him as he won his first championship.

What's left?

There is this: If the Warriors return to the Finals for a fourth consecutive year, they'll join rare company. The Celtics did it 10 years in a row during the 1950s and '60s. Then the Celtics and Lakers each had four-year Finals streaks in the 1980s. The Miami Heat did it withLeBron James.

It won't be easy. Just as the Warriors have cruised through the first two rounds, the Rockets also won each of their two playoff series in five games to reach what has seemed all season like an inevitable matchup

Kerr doesn't dangle history before his players as motivation.

"I'm much more about the process itself and how fun it is when we dominate and play well and everybody wins and we all have a great time," Kerr said. "I try to point that out and remind them how fleeting this all is from a career standpoint."

To get bored of unceasing success is a luxury not many teams have. It's one the Warriors left behind once the playoffs began.

Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli