In what may be less surprising than Alabama winning another national title in college football, the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets have advanced to the Western Conference Finals.

James Harden Houston Rockets
James Harden and the Rockets are the underdogs, despite having a superior regular season record, against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors heading into the Western Conference Finals. (Image: chron.com)

But what may be considered a bit of a surprise is the team with the NBA’s best regular season record, Houston, is the underdog to win the series.

The Rockets finished out the regular season seven games ahead of their upcoming opponent in the conference, an accomplishment that means nothing now as both teams are only focused on the ultimate goal: winning a championship.

Both contenders enter the series with an 8-1 record during the playoffs, both brushing off a pair of inferior opponents that didn’t even belong on the same court to get to this spot.

Delaying the Inevitable?

Oddsmakers, basketball experts, and fans all anticipated a Golden State-Houston matchup in the Western Conference Finals months ago. The Warriors were heavily favored in the preseason to get back to the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season. They’re still favored, opening at -185 to beat the Rockets (+155), at Las Vegas’ Westgate SuperBook.

Houston had the NBA’s best record (65-17) and made mincemeat of Minnesota and Utah in the first two rounds, but the Warriors are getting more love from the oddsmakers due to experience and perception.

The perception is that Golden State put it on cruise control during the regular season and was less motivated than Houston, a franchise that hasn’t won a title in 23 years. And the oddsmakers know that experience does matter some. The Warriors are in the midst of one the NBA’s all-time great dynasties, whereas the Rockets haven’t been in this position for many years.

Couple that with the fact that Steph Curry missed the final month of the regular season, and it makes sense why Vegas has more confidence in the Warriors despite the inferior regular season record.

Harden’s Legacy on the Line

James Harden is one of the most complete offensive players in the game. He has averaged 23 points and six assists per game during his career, and has been a nearly unstoppable force since coming to Houston in 2012. But he will never supplant his legacy as one of the all-time greats until he wins a championship. Fair or not, that’s how fans judge superstars.

This is a huge series for Harden, whose only trip to the Finals was in 2012 with Oklahoma City, a loss to the LeBron James-led Miami Heat. If he can lead his team to a series victory over a great Golden State team, led by future Hall of Famers Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, and then get past the Eastern Conference champions, he’ll go from being considered one of the best players to have never won a title to one of the best players…period.

But getting that “ship” won’t be easy as the Rockets are set to face a loaded Warriors team that can score at will, inside and out, and has the kind of depth that would make any NBA coach jealous. If Steph and Klay Thompson are off, Durant can take over.

The Warriors are so deep that Draymond Green is almost a forgotten man at times, and he’s an All-Star. They’re like a mix of the 1980s Celtics and Lakers teams, with “Showtime” athletes and shooters that could compete with Larry Bird in a game of HORSE.

If Harden is going to win his first NBA title, he’ll need his supporting cast more than ever to step up big. No doubt that Clint Capela is one of the best centers in the NBA, and point guard Chris Paul is far from the washed up player some said he was coming into the season.

Houston should feel comfortable counting on those guys to come through against Golden State. But the play of Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker, Trevor Ariza, and the rest of the role players will determine the Rockets fate.

If you have faith in those role players to come through against the defending champs, put some money down on Houston to win the series. At +155, the odds are enticing.

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