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There’s no shortage of story lines in Warriors vs. Rockets

For starters, Chris Paul will play in his first Western Conference finals

OAKLAND, California — Not even an hour had passed from the buzzer sounding on the end of the New Orleans Pelicans’ season when head coach Alvin Gentry was asked what could have been perceived as a rude question.

“With the talent on both teams, how do you see the Warriors-Rockets matching up?” a curious and gutsy reporter asked.

Gentry’s gritty Pelicans were just eliminated by the Golden State Warriors 113-104 in Game 5 on Tuesday night. Hours earlier, the Houston Rockets advanced to the Western Conference finals by eliminating the Utah Jazz 112-102 in a Game 5. The victories set up a West finals matchup between the reigning NBA champion Warriors and the team with the league’s best regular-season record in the Rockets.

The question initially caused Gentry to respond, “Are you serious?” But ultimately, even the losing coach on his way to vacation couldn’t hide his enthusiasm for Warriors-Rockets.

“It’s going to be a great series,” Gentry said. “It will be very entertaining. The people will have a great time watching that series because, you know, you have great players out there. Obviously, when you take [Houston’s] C.P. [Chris Paul] and James Harden, it’s a great backcourt.

“When you take the Warriors … they have been there so many times and been through so many situations where it’s big game after big game. They will be solid too. I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a great series.”

With all due respect to LeBron James and the Eastern Conference’s Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics and still-breathing Philadelphia 76ers, this is the marquee matchup of the NBA season regardless of it being followed by the actual Finals. There are so many story lines to choose from with Warriors-Rockets.

Let’s start with the hot Rockets:

• The Rockets have a chance to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1995. Star guard James Harden was 5 years old when his Rockets last made it to the Finals. Houston owns a 4-3 record in the conference finals.

“We’re halfway home, and we know we haven’t done anything yet,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters after eliminating Utah. “But this was huge for us.”

Chris Paul scored a playoff career-high 41 points in Game 5 against Utah. The first-year Rockets guard is making his first West finals appearance after playing in the same conference for 13 seasons. The nine-time All-Star could become one of the nation’s feel-good stories if he makes it to the Finals for the first time.

“His performance [Tuesday] was off the charts. Couldn’t happen to a better guy,” D’Antoni said.

• Harden, the NBA’s leading MVP candidate, can exorcise some abrupt and unforgettable playoff endings of the past by advancing to the Finals. The 6-foot-6 combo guard averaged 24.5 points and shot 50 percent from 3-point range in two regular-season games against the Warriors.

“I know if we give the effort that we know we can, it’s pretty tough to beat us,” Harden said.

• While the Warriors may have the world’s best 3-point shooters in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the Rockets have the greatest collection of 3-point shooters in the league in Harden, Paul, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. Houston tied a playoff high with 18 3-pointers against the Jazz in Game 5, shooting 46.2 percent from 3-point range.

“[Paul and Harden] get so much attention,” Tucker said. “It’s just figuring out our spots and where to go and kind of be able to make plays when they get doubled or when we’re called upon. But for us, it’s always just spacing out and taking the shots we take.”

• The Rockets won the last meeting against the Warriors 116-108 on Jan. 20 and took the season series 2-1. The weary Warriors were without key forward Andre Iguodala in the Jan. 20 loss and were playing in the final game of a five-game road trip. Houston verbalized strong confidence after that win.

“We’re for real as it can get. I have never been this confident playing in my entire career,” Harden told The Undefeated on Jan. 20.

Clint Capela told The Undefeated that night: “If we do what we’re supposed to do against them, we’re better than them.”

When reminded of the Rockets’ confidence and bravado after beating the Warriors, Draymond Green said Tuesday night: “That’s all fine and dandy, in January. But now you got, they got us. We got them. Got to go out there and play. We’ll see who is better.”

After advancing to the Western finals, Capela tempered his words about the Warriors.

“This team is going to be hard,” Capela said. “It’s going to be a fight. There are going to be a lot of adjustments every game. It’s going to be a chess game. Of course, we are going to be ready.”

Now for the reigning NBA champions:

• The Warriors earned a franchise-record fourth straight conference finals berth. Three years ago, Golden State eliminated Harden and the Rockets in five games during the 2015 Western Conference finals. Golden State is trying to become the first West team since the Los Angeles Lakers (1981-85) to play in four straight NBA Finals.

“We won two championships in three years,” Green said. “We’re not about to run off talking about how bad we want to play somebody. We want to win another championship. And it don’t matter who’s in the way of that.”

• The Warriors have used a starting lineup the past two games that has been nicknamed “The Death Lineup” or “The Hampton 5” that includes four NBA All-Stars in Kevin Durant, Curry, Green and Thompson as well as 2015 NBA Finals MVP Iguodala. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr declined to say whether he would start that lineup against the Rockets in Game 1 on Monday. Capela, an athletic, floor-running, shot-blocking, 6-foot-10 center, could make it challenging for the Warriors to start the game with a small lineup.

“I thought that lineup did a really good job of switching everything, playing good defense, getting out and running as well,” Durant said. “When we lock in and get stops, I think we are a very dangerous team in transition, and we’ve got guys who can do multiple things.”

• Curry finally appears to be healthy after missing the Warriors’ final 10 regular-season games and first five postseason games with a knee injury. The two-time NBA MVP scored 28 points and nailed three 3-pointers in 37 minutes. Curry will have five days’ rest before Game 1 of the West finals.

“I feel good. I feel confident in what I’m able to do out there,” Curry said. “Timing can still get a little better with the ball, things like that, when you start to get so excited. When I’m out there, missing six weeks is still appreciative of just being out there playing.”

• Outside of James, there may not be a player more valuable in the postseason than Green. The three-time NBA All-Star averaged a triple-double of 14.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 10 assists in the New Orleans series. Green averaged 15.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, 9.7 assists and 1.3 steals in three games against the Rockets in the regular season.

“I don’t get fooled into thinking, ‘Oh, I averaged a triple-double in the series because of me,’ ” Green said. “I have great teammates, super talented. That makes the game a lot easier and, you know, very fun to play with. It was great, but it’s not just good me.”

• Durant has been unstoppable offensively, as he has tallied 17 straight playoff games scoring 20-plus points dating to last season. In just his second season with Golden State, the 2017 NBA Finals MVP moved into 10th place on the Warriors’ playoff scoring list, passing Hall of Famer Chris Mullin (685).

“Anything could happen,” Durant said of the Warriors-Rockets series. “This is the matchup. Both teams are looking forward to going out there and competing and having some fun.”

• The Warriors are in an unfamiliar position starting a series on the road. Golden State split road games against the Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs so far. The Warriors also split their two road games against the Rockets in the regular season. Golden State has won at least one road game in a franchise-record 17 straight playoff series.

“I’m looking forward to the opportunity for us to go start a series somewhere else and not so much where we’re at home, protecting, just trying not to give up a game. We’ve got a couple swings to go in there and take one,” Green said.

Thompson believed it was inevitable that the Warriors vs. Rockets matchup would eventually take place. It’s probably what most NBA fans — and, quietly, the NBA itself — wanted. We’ll have to wait until Monday night to see how the West can be won.

“I kind of felt like that the whole year, the trajectory they were on and the pace we were playing with,” Thompson said. “And I’m sure NBA fans will be very excited for this matchup: two very good, historic offenses. And it’s gonna be a lot of fun for everybody.”

Said Capela: “We’re just excited. Everybody’s excited about it. And I’m sure all the NBA fans are excited about it too.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.