The Houston Rockets forced the Western Conference Finals to seven games against the Golden State Warriors last season, and Rockets guard Eric Gordon believes his team will finish the job this time around.
In fact, Gordon told Marc Stein of the New York Times on Tuesday that the Warriors should view the Rockets as the most prominent threat to their three-peat.
"They have to," Gordon asserted. "We're a lot smaller than last year—we're a different team—but we can match up well with them. I really do believe there's no other team but us that can really have a chance against them."
James Harden has somehow been better than in his league MVP campaign last season, and teammates such as Gordon are starting to see the benefits of Harden demanding so much an opponent's defensive focus. In the last five games, Gordon has made 26 of 51 three-point attempts.
Excelling beyond the arc is familiar territory for the Rockets, as they are leading the league in three-pointers made for the second season in a row. However, the three-point shot was what ultimately cost Houston Game 7 against the Warriors in that Western Conference Finals series. The Rockets missed an astonishing 27 straight threes.
Health was also an issue for the Rockets in that series. Point guard Chris Paul missed Game 6 and Game 7 with a hamstring strain. Hamstring issues followed Paul into this season and cost him 17 games throughout December and January, slightly overlapping with center Clint Capela missing a month with a torn ligament in his right thumb.
In that stretch, Harden scored 304 points unassisted. Since Capela's and Paul's returns, Harden has continued to dominate offensively with at least 30 points in 32 consecutive games ending on Feb. 25. The only streak that matters right now, though, is the nine-game winning streak Houston will take into Wednesday night's game against the Warriors.
Stein elaborated on the Rockets' confidence heading into this postseason, despite those concerns:
"How much gas will Harden have left for the postseason after the load he had to shoulder to lift the Rockets out of the mire? The Beard shook that off as a concern when we crossed paths Sunday night in Dallas, insisting that the poor start was unavoidable because of all of Houston's health issues and nodding viigorously in the affirmative when it was suggested the the Rockets were back."
As Gordon pointed out, this Rockets team is constructed differently. There were initial concerns that the Rockets wouldn't be able to compete defensively after losing forward Luc Mbah a Moute to the Los Angeles Clippers in free agency following last season.
Those concerns have not been unfounded, as the Rockets are merely 23rd in defensive rating. However, three of the Rockets' last four wins have seen them hold opponents to under 100 points. Houston's defeat of Dallas on Sunday was clinched by Paul blocking Mavericks point guard Jalen Brunson at the buzzer.
Field Level Media (h/t Yahoo Sports) put the Rockets' defensive spark into perspective:
"Following a rugged start to the season that yielded a sub-.500 record by mid-December, the Rockets long ago reclaimed their offensive identity and have ranked second to the Golden State Warriors in offensive efficiency for a lengthy stretch of games.
"The recent resurgence defensively, however, has reaffirmed their self-belief and caused the rest of the league to take notice.
"Over their last three games, the Rockets have produced a 96.9 defensive rating. Performing at that level on defense while striking a balance offensively is something Houston sought to accomplish this season."
The Rockets' upward trend is matched by the Warriors struggling down the stretch. Golden State is 4-5 since returning from the All-Star break with an uncharacteristic loss to the 16-52 Phoenix Suns on Sunday.
Heading into Wednesday night's games, Golden State sits atop the Western Conference at 45-21 while Houston owns the third seed at 42-25.