- - Monday, May 6, 2019

With all due respect to No. 2-seed Denver and No. 3-seed Portland, there’s a sense that the Western Conference finals are underway as we speak, even while the aforementioned teams toil to advance.

The Nuggets and Trail Blazers have produced a scintillating back and forth in their semifinal matchup, particularly Game 3’s instant-classic, four-overtime thriller. Neither squad has won consecutive contests and neither has protected its homecourt, with Denver’s road win Sunday knotting the series at two games apiece.

Great stuff.

But most attention is focused on the other Western conference semis, featuring three-time champion Golden State and would-be nemesis Houston. Denver and Portland have plenty of talent between them, but not the star power of Kevin Durant and James Harden, nor the teams’ recent history and bad blood.

In Durant and Harden, we’re witnessing the reigning MVPs for the NBA Finals and NBA regular season. Durant is staking his claim as the league’s best player and Harden is right behind him, pushing like he did when they battled in practice as Oklahoma City teammates.

“Hopefully, he pulled a couple of things from me, but I probably pulled way more things from him than he got from me,” Durant said via The San Francisco Chronicle.

A rematch of last season’s Western Conference finals, the Warriors-Rockets series was looked forward to with great anticipation all season. Unfortunately, Denver won 54 games to Houston’s 53 (clinching the second seed), while Portland also won 53 games (securing the third seed on tiebreakers), leading to an earlier-than-expected reprise.

The Rockets nearly stole Game 1 in Oakland, but returned home in a 2-0 hole. They got on the board in overtime on Saturday, when Durant and Harden produced two more epic performances.

“In ‘Harden World,’ that was good, but he can play better” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters after Harden went for 41 points, nine rebounds and six assists in Game 3. “That’s James. That’s what he does.”

Anything Harden does, Durant seemingly can do better.

K.D. is averaging 35 points per game in the postseason while shooting better than 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from behind the arc, and 90 percent from the free-throw line. In the last seven playoff games, Durant is averaging 39 points.

“I think Kevin wants to be recognized as the best player in the world,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said via The Sporting News. “And I happen to think he is. … To me, it’s pretty obvious watching the playoffs who the best player has been.”

But we’re still not sure which team is best.

Stephen Curry and Chris Paul haven’t been their usual selves, causing Durant and Harden to carry more of the load and attract more attention. That didn’t bode well for Houston last season, when a right hamstring injury knocked Paul out of Games 6 and 7. Harden was awful in the finale, committing five turnovers and missing 11 of 13 3-point shots. Meanwhile, Durant poured in a tidy 34 points to lead Golden State to victory.

Even though three of their last four seasons have concluded with defeats against the Warriors, the Rockets aren’t intimidated. Numerous observers believe Houston would’ve won last year if not for Paul’s injury. Golden State has the championship pedigree, but Houston has more than a puncher’s chance, especially when Harden gets going.

He’s still trying to live down his horrendous playoff performance – 10 points and six turnovers – when San Antonio closed out Houston in Game 6 of the 2017 conference finals. As a team, Houston is trying to forget the 27 consecutive missed 3-pointers against Golden State last year in Game 7, an outcome that again raised questions about D’Antoni’s approach.

We know by now that the Rockets aren’t changing.

Harden will dominate the ball and shoot a ton of threes when he isn’t driving to the basket. He’ll finish, draw fouls and find open teammate for jumpers. Simple to predict and almost impossible to prevent. “He can do everything,” Durant said.

Durant knows the feeling. The Warriors will never be viewed as his team, but he’s their best player. If he’s destined to leave Golden State after this season, he plans to do so as a three-peat Finals MVP, which isn’t out of the question.

This series is a crucial step forward in Durant’s quest, or an important building block for Harden.

Denver or Portland will have a say in the story’s ending (not to mention the Eastern Conference representative), but that’s an afterthought at this point. The outcome of those other series is almost irrelevant.

With all due respect.

⦁ Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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