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In duel between Warriors and Rockets, the big shot will rule

And they can take a cue from Diana Taurasi, one of basketball’s best big-shot makers

The Golden State Warriors-Houston Rockets playoff series begins Monday night in Houston, and it’s a tantalizing matchup: The reigning NBA champ Warriors versus the Rockets, the team with the league’s best regular-season record (65-17), including two wins out of three games against the Warriors, who finished the regular season 58-24.

With a starting lineup that features four 2018 All-Stars — Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson — the Warriors must win the championship or be dismissed by some fans and many in the sport’s chattering class as failures. Indeed, if the Warriors fail to make the NBA Finals, they’ll be talked about, rebuked and scorned as complete and absolute failures who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Meanwhile, the Rockets are led by a head coach, Mike D’Antoni, and two star players, Chris Paul and James Harden, who’ve never won any NBA championships — a cardinal sin in sports.

So, who is going to win the Western Conference finals matchup? I dunno, do you?

I’ll leave the predicting, especially the constantly incorrect predicting, to the TV folks. They make the big bucks while being wrong with swagger, humor and bombast. But I will take a small step out on a limb: The team that’s most likely to win will have a player who makes the most Taurasies, the name I’ve given to shots and plays that control the rhythms and shape the contours of games.

Named for Diana Taurasi of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, a Taurasi sends a flaming arrow into the heart of the opposition’s defenses and confidence. It’s the shot that brings a chair down on the head of an already staggered opponent. It’s the shot that plants a victorious flag on the championship ground that the now vanquished foe had also sought to conquer.

When she was at college at UConn, where she led her team to three national championships, her coach, Geno Auriemma, explained his team’s success to its opponents as, “We have Diana and you don’t.”

Taurasi, now 35, has had a sports career filled with individual achievements, including leading the WNBA in scoring five times and winning the 2004 WNBA Rookie of the Year and the 2009 WNBA MVP awards. It’s her continued winning of championships that’s defined her stellar sports résumé though: She’s won three championships in the WNBA and four Olympic gold medals. She’s won multiple championships in European basketball too. And she’s done it with an impish élan, as if she were living basketball and not merely playing it.

Her clutch play has earned the superstar guard the nickname the “White Mamba,” a pale knockoff of former Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant’s “Black Mamba.”

After all, the colorful and sharply focused Taurasi is a sports original. Later this week, the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer is set to begin her 14th WNBA season.

In last year’s NBA Finals, superstar forward Durant made the critical killer shots, his Taurasies, that propelled the Warriors to the NBA championship, earning him Finals MVP honors. The year before, Warriors players such as Thompson and Harrison Barnes (now a Dallas Maverick) took and missed too many critical shots for the Warriors, who lost the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers despite having a 3-1 series lead. The Warriors won the 2015 NBA championship with Curry hitting the shots that spurred his team to scintillating runs or stopped opponents from taking control of games — which is to say, he hit his Taurasies.

The Western Conference finals begin Monday night. In Curry and Durant, the Warriors have two players who have shown they can hit the critical shots that drive their team to a championship. In Paul and Harden, the Rockets have two star players who don’t have an NBA championship in their past. But neither past success nor failure will dictate what happens this year: NBA basketball is always played in the here and now, one crucial, electrifying and magic moment at a time.

Consequently, each team will be looking for an edge in their much-anticipated series. I suggest both teams, especially the Rockets, get some Diana Taurasi tapes and watch her work. Nobody has done a better job of playing winning basketball than Diana Taurasi.

And nobody can play winning basketball without making the most Taurasies.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.