HOUSTON — Maybe it won’t mean a thing that the Houston Rockets spent the early part of the regular season clearing all these mental hurdles against the vaunted Golden State Warriors.
Maybe the Warriors will do precisely what so many predicted, barreling through all comers in the playoffs en route to their third title in four tries.
And maybe the Rockets will head into the summer in search of Warriors answers yet again.
But their 116-108 win at the Toyota Center on Saturday night sure felt like something more, like a team finally starting to believe that there’s nothing invincible about the Warriors while deciding to pull back the curtain on its own psyche along the way.
Credit general manager Daryl Morey for that last revelation, as he was the one setting the transparent tone last month when he admitted that the Rockets were — as he said on ESPN radio — "basically obsessed” with beating the Warriors. Next thing you know, someone was slipping truth serum into the ventilation system inside the Rockets locker room and all sorts of candid commentary was coming out.
This went way beyond the potential tiebreaker for home court advantage in the playoffs, although there is value in earning that edge in what was the regular season finale between these two teams (the Rockets won two of three matchups in all). It went past the Rockets breaking the Warriors’ 14-game road winning streak too, even if the Rockets did enjoy stopping Golden State two games shy of the league record. This was about the new-and-improved Rockets — who entered the season having lost 19 of their past 24 meetings to the Warriors — changing the shape of this showdown.
James Harden swears he didn’t rush back from his hamstring injury because the Warriors were coming to town, but the timing wound up working quite well. After missing seven games, he shook off the rust in a subpar return game against Minnesota on Thursday (a win) and came out strong on Saturday with three early three-pointers that set an impressive tone during his 22-point night. But when the question arose about his alleged playing time limit — a 30-minute mandate that was blown by during the fourth quarter en route to a 35-minute night — Harden wasn’t afraid to underscore the importance of it all.
“That (minutes limit) was out; that was out,” he said with a smile. “Thirty minutes? Man, I knew how important this game was, (so) a couple of extra minutes wouldn’t hurt. We’ve got an off day tomorrow, so rest my feet, get a massage and get some treatment and be ready to go on Monday."
The follow-up question was key: Was the game important because of the standings, or because it was the Warriors?
“Important (for) both,” Harden replied. “For our swag.”
There was plenty of that to go around from everyone but Chris Paul, who said plenty with his play during a 33-point, 11-rebound, seven-assist outing. And while the nine-time All-Star wasn’t willing to admit that this game meant more than your typical Jan. 20 affair, plenty of others were.
“We have a chance to go after the No. 1 seed,” said Rockets guard Eric Gordon, who shot just 2 of 15 on the night but was jovial afterward nonetheless. “Now that we’re healthy, I think we’re going to get back into a big winning streak and getting back to doing what we need to do, what we did earlier on in the year (when they started 25-4).
“We really do have that chance (to beat the Warriors in the playoffs). Offensively, we’re just as good as them — no question (the Warriors have the league’s best offensive rating, while the Rockets are second). And defensively, we’ve got to just — they’re a championship team. They’re consistent. Whether they win or lose, they’re consistent. Us, we still have peaks and valleys and we really can’t have those (the Warriors are fifth overall in defensive rating, while the Rockets are 12th).”
There’s truth in that, too, as the Rockets must now prove to the NBA that their early defensive dominance was more fact than fiction. They peaked to fifth in defensive rating during that early stretch, then tumbled on that end when injuries to Paul, Harden, center Clint Capela and forward Luc Mbah a Moute derailed their ride. But as was the case on opening night, when the Rockets downed the Warriors 122-121 at Oracle Arena despite losing Paul to a knee injury late, there were strong signs that this formula might be enough to take down the champs.
“We’ve got the perfect team (to combat the Warriors),” said veteran forward P.J. Tucker, who was added during the summer via free agency with the Warriors in mind. “They’re such a good team, that we’ve got to match them and be able to come out with them.
“It’s our confidence in each other (driving them). That’s how we talk. That’s our language, our lingo. We come in here today, and it’s ‘Hey fellas, it’s another game. Let’s go out here and compete, and battle, and do things we’re supposed to do so that by the end of the season, going into the postseason, we’ve got that swagger. We’ve got that feeling that we know that we can go out here and play against anybody.”
The Warriors chief among them.