Not so fast. Rivalries are earned, not given.
Seven weeks after grinding out a 132-127 double-overtime win over the Warriors at Oracle Arena, the Rockets fell back to earth in a lopsided 125-108 loss at Toyota Center on Friday night. Houston missed plenty of shots it usually makes, but a lack of defense to compensate is what was most troubling.
Entering Friday's contest, the Rockets were a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of defensive efficiency, according to NBA.com. The bigger issue is that they were 21st in opponents' second-chance points and—the telling stat for a team that also shoots lights out from three-point land—21st in opponents' three-point makes.
Not surprisingly, Golden State's four-headed monster was too much for Houston in this one. Kevin Durant finished with a game-high 32 points and seven assists, while Stephen Curry recorded 24 points and seven dimes. Draymond Green also contributed 15 points, seven assists and three blocks, while Klay Thompson added 16 points.
The quartet also combined for 12 of Golden State's 15 three-pointers.
Clint Capela finished with a career-high 22 points and 12 rebounds while James Harden added 17 points and 11 dimes. But again, Houston will ultimately be judged not by what it does in the vacuum of a box score, but by what it does against elite competition over time.
“Why would they be rivals?” Harden told Bleacher Report before the game.
“No, it’s not a rivalry if you lose every time. No, it’s a regular game for us. I think we don’t have the luxury of getting up for the Warriors and not getting up for lower-ranked teams. For us, we played them one time early this season, second time meeting tonight. We’re midway through the season, so it’s going to be a good test for us to see where we are, and we’ll just go out there, compete and have fun.”
Harden’s right: Houston and Golden State aren’t quite there yet. They're not rivals.
But with their own deadly three-point shooting prowess, the Rockets are one of few teams built to compete with the Warriors.
Ahead of Friday, Houston tallied 667 made three-pointers, the highest total in NBA history through the first 45 games of a season. Additionally, the Rockets had made 10 or more shots from behind the arc in a league-record 27 consecutive games—a streak that ended against the Spurs on Dec. 20.
Friday, they only made seven.
"They missed some open shots, but it was also good defense," Thompson said. "It was a point of ours to run them off the three-point line, because they’re the highest volume three-point shooting team in the league, making them at record numbers. It was a huge part of the game, and to make them beat us, we had to make them do it from two-point land."
It's a long season, so there will be games where shots aren't falling. The Rockets shot 20 percent from deep, making just seven of 35. And when the Rockets aren't making threes, their deficiencies on the defensive end are glaring.
"They obviously played better than we did," Mike D'Antoni said. "We didn't shoot the ball well at all, and against a team like this, you got to keep scoring. I felt that on the defensive end, we were soft early and we just didn't get into people. We were just hesitating on everything, and they're really good. They take advantage of everything."
The Warriors especially took advantage of Houston’s lackadaisical pick-and-roll defense, capitalizing on defenders getting caught behind screens, then pulling up for three-pointers and jumpers off curls.
Ball movement was also key for Golden State, who finished with 30 assists, while the Rockets had 26.
"We changed our coverage defensively," Harden said. "We kept messing with our coverage a little bit. We found one that works better for us. Next time we play them, we’ll try that and figure it out.
"But we did a really good job, especially in that first half of getting back, maintaining. Ryan [Anderson] just didn’t have enough energy. He is a guy that we need to space the floor to get our shots. But ultimately we didn’t make shots, they did, and that’s the end of the game."
The nail in the coffin came with 3:20 left in the fourth quarter. Houston was trying to make a run when Stephen Curry hit a three-pointer from the wing, putting Golden State up 117-93 and triggering a mass exodus of Rockets fans toward the exits.
That was a far cry from where Houston stood at the half, when it was able to pull within five.
"We knew coming out of halftime that we had to get off to a good start," Green said. "They had made their run and went into halftime with the momentum. It was important that we came out and got into a good start that half. They are a rhythm team, and if you let them get into their rhythm, knocking threes down, it will be a long night."
Anderson, the hero of the first meeting with 29 points, left the game early with stomach complications related to the flu, and Eric Gordon wasn't able to pick up the slack, shooting a woeful 2-of-14 from the floor and 0-of-7 from deep.
"We gotta do a better job of our spacing," Harden said. "They switch, we gotta space the floor even more and be able to get to the basket so we see the kick-out opportunities. That’s what happened in that first game up in Golden State. That’s how Ryan got a couple open threes. But we just didn’t make shots as a team. It happens."
The Rockets face the Warriors again in late March.
Twice. In one week.
If the Rockets want to beat Golden State, revisit the rival conversations and gain bragging rights (i.e. rational confidence) leading up to the playoffs, they'll need to buckle down and put the clamps on the defending Western Conference champions—in addition to finding their range again from three.
Until then, they'll have to stew on this loss and wonder what could have been.
"None of us are happy, but it happens," Harden said. "So what? What's next? That's what our motto is. We lost. This game doesn't count for more or less."