The Rockets face the Western Conference leader not once, but twice, in a span of four days, starting with Tuesday’s game at the Toyota Center in Houston and ending with the final regular-season meeting Friday in Oakland.
“We’ll see how cold-blooded we are, and it will come down to making good smart basketball plays in the right time with a lot of pressure — and if we do that, we’re as good as anybody, there’s no doubt about it,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said Monday. “I don’t think we fear anybody. We respect a lot of people, but we’re a good team.”
In Oakland on Dec. 1, the first meeting between the teams, the Rockets won a double-overtime thriller 132-127. Rockets star James Harden had a triple-double and Golden State’s Kevin Durant scored 39 points on 28 field goal attempts.
The rematch in Houston saw Golden State score 37 third-quarter points to pull away for a 125-108 win on Jan. 20.
Things have changed since the first two meetings: First, Durant suffered a left knee injury on March 1 against the Wizards and — barring an earlier return than expected — will miss the games this week.
For the Rockets, a late February trade for Lou Williams could be the X factor in the meetings with the Warriors. In Sunday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a potential first-round opponent for the Rockets, Williams scored 31 points in Houston’s 137-125 victory.
Adding Williams to the roster gives the Rockets another offensive weapon to go shot for shot with the Warriors. When Williams played for the Lakers, he averaged 16.7 points on 47.4 percent shooting against the Warriors. His outside shot, off-balanced as it appears, has proved to be difficult to defend.
“People ask me about the Warriors all the time,” Rockets GM Daryl Morey said in an interview with NBA TV last month. “You have to get there. Our first-round matchup, whoever it is, will be extremely hard, but we felt like Lou Williams gives us the best chance to win against all opponents. And then, frankly, if … we execute well and are able to make it against the Warriors at some point in the playoffs, we do think our best chance honestly is to outgun them because I don’t think they’re guardable.”
Offense is where the Rockets believe they could find an edge. It starts with Harden, who is shooting 50 percent in the past 12 games. Trevor Ariza enters Tuesday’s Warriors game coming off one of his best games, when he scored 24 points Sunday on 11 shots, most of them on strong drives to the basket. Eric Gordon also is coming off a 24-point effort Sunday. Gordon has shot just 33 percent from the floor in the two meetings against the Warriors, but things might change if he remains the starter for Ryan Anderson, who is out for the next two weeks with a sprained ankle.
Golden State has allowed NBA lows in opponent field goal percentage (.436) and 3-point field goal percentage (.328). The Rockets have said they don’t concern themselves with their opponents. As D’Antoni has noted, the Rockets will not change who they are.
But their style of play is designed to beat the Warriors. And over the next week, the Rockets will be tested again.
“I don’t think they’re a team that you can defend. They’re skilled, they’re too good,” Morey said on NBA TV. “And our only way of competing is to guard them enough and hopefully have great shooters make a lot of shots.”