OAKLAND, Calif. - It's getting fierce between the Warriors and Rockets - with the jostling for position, the well-placed jabs, the intensity, the strong-arming and the swagger.
And the action on the floor isn't too bad either for a series that's all tied up.
Yes, away from the court, these two are now talking a good game. The spice level escalated a bit when Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said Houston "can beat anybody, anywhere, anytime" just before the Western Conference finals shifted to Oakland. He presumably means the Rockets can own either of the next two games, or both, at Oracle Arena starting Sunday night, where visiting teams are known to suffer badly.
And why shouldn't he feel frisky about that? The Rockets were road-tested all season and into the playoffs and did kick off 2017-18 by spoiling championship ring night for the Warriors back in October in a distant prelude to the conference finals.
Just as well, the Warriors believe their Game 2 issues, mainly a lost touch from deep by Stephen Curry and shoddy defense, were nothing but lapses and that a return to normalcy is on tap, even against the team with the NBA's best record who ran them off the floor three days ago.
What say you, Klay Thompson?
"I'll be better. Guarantee it."
And Steve Kerr?
"We're very confident going into (today)."
Surely Draymond Green of all people backed away from saying anything bold, right?
"We're at our best when we feel threatened. And we feel threatened."
Both teams agree on this much, that the series is about to get tighter and perhaps better because both teams bring out so much in the other. In the process, the usual playoff mainstays, such as home-court advantage, adjustments and carryover from one game to the next, could be deemed non-issues. Anything goes, anything's possible.
That said, the Warriors don't believe the series is in danger of slipping away from them, and if anything feel very much in control because, they say, their imperfections are fixable. The two most glaring ones, Curry's shooting and defense, are tried and true. How often does Curry go more than a few games with a faulty jumper? And the next time the Warriors' defense goes a long stretch with constant breakdowns in games of importance will be the first in this era.
Perhaps the biggest factor in the Warriors' favor is they recognize how fatal these imperfections will be if they continue against a team as stacked as the Rockets. They need Curry's points to serve as a 1-2 punch with Kevin Durant. They need to be at their defensive finest because Houston is bringing James Harden and Chris Paul and also Eric Gordon on fire off the bench.
The Warriors' confidence is not only natural considering they've won two titles in three years, but it's also necessary in this series, which could ultimately decide the next NBA champion.
"It's time to lock in for the remainder of the series," Green said.
As the Warriors spoke Saturday during practice, Curry put in extra work. He has only a pair of 3-pointers in two games, or three fewer than PJ Tucker. Even more, the Rockets are aggressively attacking him defensively, forcing him into switches on the pick-and-roll that place him in the direct path of Harden in numerous cases, a clear Houston advantage.
By forcing him to labor on both ends, the Rockets feel he'll be one less worry for them, or at least someone who won't impact the game heavily. So far, he hasn't.
Curry says his knee injury from three months ago is fine, although he's about to play only his seventh playoff game. If he has no physical limitations as he says, then the Warriors hope it's just a matter of working off the rust from inactivity.
"He doesn't need us to create looks for him," said Green. "He's going to do that himself, and we know he will."
It's all intertwined, the offensive link between Curry, Thompson and Durant. Against all but a handful of teams, the Warriors can easily overcome one of them misfiring or even two. But they're playing the Rockets, a historical offensive team, and scoring is at a premium if only to keep up. Durant has yet to see any slippage, but Thompson and Curry flopped in Game 2 and the outcome, therefore, was predictable.
"I think we'll be fine," Thompson said. "And once Steph gets a couple of open looks and gets going, he can make any shot in the book."
The bigger worry of the two, the Warriors say, is defense, only because the Rockets test those limits. Game 2 showed the damage the Rockets are capable of inflicting if role players take advantage of Harden's isolation game and hit their shots.
Gordon outscored the Warriors' starting backcourt by himself in Game 2 and is making over half his shots both beyond and within the 3-point stripe. He was joined in Game 2 by Tucker and Trevor Ariza piling up points on the confused and suddenly-overmatched Warriors.
"When you get 22 points from a guy (Tucker) you don't plan on getting it from, then yeah, (defense) needs to be better," Green said.
The 127 points in Game 2 represented the most given up by the Warriors since a February win against the Clippers; in the postseason, they surrendered at least that many only once previously in the last 39 games.
"We're at our best when we're getting stops," Kerr said. "We've got to do a better job of guarding the ball and staying in front, and that eliminates all those corner threes and drive and kicks."
This is a series that for the most part will offer no surprises. Both teams know each other and also reflect each other on offense, with plenty of isolation and deep shooting. The Warriors have rings the Rockets crave, yet Houston is built on veterans with Paul and Harden capable of being aces in the clutch.
Then it comes down to which team shows fewer bad stretches and plays with more urgency. Well: Golden State, which hasn't trailed 2-1 in a series since Oklahoma City in 2016 - which they eventually rallied and won - is pushing the red alert in a series that's tied and will be played on their court the next two games.
"When we're threatened, we play with great urgency and hustle," Thompson said. "Along with our talent, that's a great combination right there. It tends to bring out the best in this team.
"Being threatened is a good feeling for us."
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