The Warriors won back-to-back series in 5 games on Wednesday night, but if you think these 4-1 series are similar in any way, I’ve got some untangleable Christmas lights to sell you. To illustrate the difference, look no further than Golden State’s point differential in each series: +94 vs. Houston compared to +22 vs. Portland. Math tells me that the Warriors AVERAGE margin of victory over the Rockets (18.8) is pretty damn close to their TOTAL margin of victory (22 if you missed the last sentence) over the Blazers – YIKES!
But this isn’t about stats or coaching, role players or better second bananas – when you are playing the Warriors and will most certainly lose the series, it is about giving a shit. In a league where teams go as their best player goes, I’m taking Damian Lillard 10 times out of 10 over James Harden. With an extremely similar usage rate (Harden: 31%; Lillard: 31.6%), fairly comparable series averages (Harden: 26.6 PTS, 7.6 AST, 5.2 REB, 5.2 TO; Lillard: 31.8 PTS, 7.6 AST, 4.4 REB, 3.0 TO), and not-so-great defense on either side (Harden: 111.8 DefRtg; Lillard: 120.1 DefRtg), the difference does not lie in the numbers.
Simply put: where Harden rolls over and dies, Lillard persists – and their teams follow suit.
Preseason predictions had Harden’s Rockets as a title contender at best and, at worst, a sure thing to be in the mix with the non-GSW also-rans of the Western Conference. At the same time, the Trail Blazers had basement-level expectations and were presumably rebuilding after losing four starters. As the season progressed, Houston proved to be a toxic mess as Portland gelled. With roles reversed, the Rockets limped into the postseason and the Blazers ended up with the 5-seed, just behind the West’s elite.
Led by Lillard, dudes stepped up – CJ McCollum balled, Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee proved to be legit NBA starters, and guys like Allen Crabbe, “How Could Ya Be” Mo Harkless, and Ed Davis found their stride. With Harden, teammates seemed like strangers. Dwight Howard clearly wanted more touches, their wings were disengaged, and they had to bring in Michael Fucking Beasley (who played well) to help drag them into the playoffs. Even a young, high-energy guy like Clint Capela, who probably needs zero touches, seemed stifled. Lillard somehow employs the right mix of ball-dominance and distribution, while Harden leans too much in one direction, making his teammates stand and watch more than anything else.
Above all though, it is obvious which of these players gives more of a shit. Given minimal credit or expectation of success at the season’s outset and a rough (yet unsurprising) All-Star snub, Lillard stayed the course and, with the help of some Clippers injuries, got the chance to show what he and his team are all about in the playoffs. With All-Star expectations and a team supposedly poised for a great year, Harden retained all individual accolades as his team fell flat. When things got tough, Harden got his and nothing more. There is no question both of these players are transcendent NBA talents – I just know which one I would prefer on my side when shit gets sketchy and uncertain.
Which takes me to their matchups against Golden State. One can argue that the massively negative team +/- the Rockets posted is inflated by end-of-game garbage time, but who let it get to that point? One could also say that the Blazers had a better coach and role players, but given early predictions, could it be that Lillard willed that into reality and made those around him better? As the Warriors hit shot after shot, only one team answered consistently and relentlessly – and that attitude comes from the top down. James Harden is absolutely a top ten NBA player, but Damian Lillard might have just jumped him in those rankings out of pure, contagious give-a-shit.