Resurgent Rockets Provide New Challenge For Warriors 

The Warriors were careful not to say whether they preferred to play the Houston Rockets or the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference finals — no surprise there — but the consensus was that the latter would pose a greater threat.

When the Rockets visit Oracle Arena in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday night, that theory will be tested. The Warriors swept the four games between them in the regular season.

Like the Warriors, the Rockets enter the conference finals riding a three-game winning streak but also a wave of emotion. They are fresh off a trio of victories against the Clippers in elimination games, including an historic 119-107 comeback in Game 6 in Los Angeles. On Sunday, they became just the ninth team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 deficit in a playoff series.

"It's the ultimate confidence booster," star guard James Harden called it.

Given the firepower of the teams involved, the best-of-seven series figures to be an up-tempo one, contrary to what the Warriors faced against the ground-and-pound Memphis Grizzlies in the previous round.

"Memphis slows the game down, but we still found a way to play at our tempo, which is our strength, obviously," the Warriors' Stephen Curry said after practice on Sunday. "I wouldn't say it's going to be easier against a more fast-paced team like the Rockets ... In the playoffs, things take a different shape. And in the Western Conference Finals, you have to expect that to be the same.

The Warriors scored one-sided 131-106 and 126-113 wins over the Rockets in January, but all four of their victories in the regular season came against different personnel.

Josh Smith and Corey Brewer, who spearheaded the 40-15 comeback in the fourth quarter in Game 6 against the Clippers, were not on the roster in the first two losses. Nor was Pablo Prigioni, the 38-year-old veteran. Moreover, in those games, Houston started the likes of Patrick Beverley (out for the playoffs due to wrist surgery) and Kostas Papanikolaou (only 19 minutes played this postseason), as well as Tarik Black and Isaiah Canaan, both of whom are no longer with the team.

The matchup to watch features Curry, the Most Valuable Player whose 46 3-pointers are tops in the postseason, against the runner-up Harden, fresh off a 31-point, eight-assist, seven-rebound line in a 113-100 win in Game 7 on Sunday.

But the Rockets' offensive attack by no means ends with The Beard, as Harden is known. It has six players currently scoring in double-figures this postseason. Trevor Ariza (13.2 points per game), Josh Smith (12.9), Corey Brewer (12.4) and Terrence Jones (11.3) comprise their flexible wing ensemble. Each is capable of defending multiple positions and will get a chance to corral Klay Thompson from behind the 3-point arc and inside the paint.

In the regular season, the Rockets attempted a league-leading 32.7 3's and second-most free throws at 26.0 per contest. The Warriors were 26th in free throws with 20.8 per game.

The duties of containing Curry, meanwhile, will probably be split between point guards Jason Terry, a 37-year-old surprise contributor this season following his acquisition from Sacramento last year as salary-cap filler, and Pablo Prigioni, whose Game 7 performance showed his moxie.

No player, though, including Harden, is seemingly more integral to the Rockets' hopes than center Dwight Howard. His matchup with Golden State center Andrew Bogut, who had an impressive showing against the Grizzlies' Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, looms large. With control of the paint comes opportunities for Curry and others at the rim.

The Warriors won't have big body Marreese Speights in Game 1. Coach Steve Kerr said the 6-foot-10 power forward will not practice today due to a right calf strain he suffered in Game 4 at Memphis. The veteran could be available later in the series.

"We got to make sure Chef Curry doesn't get cooking," Howard said after the clincher over the Clippers. "But seriously, we got to play basketball, endure the process and hopefully get one step closer."

The injury- and foul-prone Howard is averaging 17.2 points, 13.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks this postseason. His defense and rim protection are key components in the Rockets' defense.

Said Curry, "We got the job done [against the Grizzlies], and there's another test coming up."

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Jack Ross

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