SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — One thing is clear through three games of the power-packed Western Conference finals between a Golden State team that has won two of the past three championships and a Houston team that had a league-best 65 wins.
If either team is off its game, a blowout could ensue.
The Rockets found themselves on the wrong end of that equation in a 126-85 defeat in Game 3 that was the most lopsided loss in their postseason history and the biggest win ever for the Warriors, who took a 2-1 series lead.
Now the big question heading into Game 4 on Tuesday night is which team has the edge if both are clicking.
“I kind of expected that yesterday, that it would be that type of game,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We didn’t bring our best game. But I’m hoping for the best. I hope we play great and them bad. Never know.”
In a possible bit of gamesmanship, D’Antoni said the pressure in Game 4 is squarely on Golden State’s shoulders despite the fact Houston trails in the series. He hopes that helps his players stay loose and play with an extra “giddy-up” in their step.
“We should always have a swagger,” star guard James Harden said. “But even more importantly, tomorrow. They’ve got to try to take a 3-1 lead going on the road. Tie this thing up going back to our crib.”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr said he welcomes the pressure, knowing his team has shown a tendency to lose focus when there’s not as much on the line. That may have contributed to Golden State coming out flat in a 127-105 loss in Game 2 after winning the series opener by 13 points.
Star Kevin Durant has another theory for why there have been so many lopsided games this postseason. There has been only one Western Conference playoff game this month decided by fewer than eight points and there hasn’t been a single playoff game in either conference decided by single digits since May 9 heading into Monday night’s action.
“The 3-pointer’s such a huge part of the game now that it could easily go from six to 16 or 17 in a matter of seconds in the game,” Durant said. “So I wouldn’t say … the games aren’t good. It’s just the fact that the style of play causes teams to pull away a little faster.”
The Warriors might have to take the court in Game 4 without a key piece with forward Andre Iguodala doubtful with a sore left knee. If Iguodala can’t go, the Warriors will be down a key defender against Harden and a playmaker on offense, forcing Kerr to make another adjustment after the move to put Iguodala in the starting lineup provided a big spark in the second round against New Orleans.
One factor in Golden State’s favor is that Stephen Curry might have found his outside shot in the second half Sunday. After making just 3 of 20 3-pointers in the first 10 quarters of the series, Curry hit 4 of 5 from long range in Game 3, including a 30-footer that is nearly impossible to defend.
“I work on it all the time, and I made it before,” Curry said. “I had amnesia, really. In that moment, in my head am I 0-for-0, or am I 10-for-10 in my head? I’m feeling good in that moment. Just shoot it. You can’t second-guess your first instinct in that moment. So it’s obviously good to see it go down, and we got a little boost from that possession, and able turn it into a big win tonight.”
That type of short-term memory is just what the Rockets need after the Game 3 blowout, even if D’Antoni did plan to hold a film session to go over the mistakes for his own sanity more than as a teaching tool.
His players know they weren’t aggressive enough on both ends and lacked the proper focus needed to beat a Warriors team that is nearly unstoppable when at its best this time of year. But the Rockets have the confidence built in a stellar regular season and first two rounds to believe they have the tools to pull it off.
“Just go out there and do it,” Harden said. “It’s pretty simple. Not try to overcomplicate things. Just go out there and do what we do. Obviously, do the opposite of what we did last game, but it’s not hard at all.”
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley in Oakland contributed to this report