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“Send a statement”; Rockets-Warriors has developed into a true rivalry

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The Rockets-Warriors matchup seemingly went from one-sided to a heated rivalry over night.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday night after the Golden State Warriors suffered an inexplicable loss to the Phoenix Suns at home, Stephen Curry had this to say about bouncing back from their recent struggles:

The game he’s referring to, of course, is their fourth and final matchup with the Houston Rockets at the Toyota Center. Golden State has dropped six of its last nine games, and Houston is currently the hottest team in the league, having won nine-straight. So, yes, it is a gut check for the reigning champs.

What is also is, though, is a far cry from where these two team stood just two seasons ago.

In January of 2017, James Harden had this to say about the supposed rivalry, via Bleacher Report:

“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.”

Up until the 2017-2018 season, the Rockets almost zero success against Steve Kerr’s Warriors.

In the first three years against Golden State under new management, Houston won only one 1 of their 11 regular season matchups - their first win finally coming in the third year. In the playoffs, Houston boasted a 2-8 record after meeting them in back-to-back series in the Western Conference Finals and the first round, respectively.

In just three years, the Rockets and Warriors played each other a grand total of 21 times.

The “rivalry” was also built on more than a sheer game of numbers too. In ‘14-’15, the Rockets finished second in the West, behind Golden State, in the midst of a heated MVP battle between Harden and Curry, and eventually faced each other for a shot at the title. While it was a down year for the Rockets in ‘15-’16, they returned the following year to finish third in the West and back in contention.

For the rivalry, itself, the amount of games played were there, the individual team success was there, the star power was there, but it was still missing real competition.

It all changed for Houston when the Rockets added Chris Paul in the summer of 2017 to an already super-charged Mike D’Antoni offense. After adding a few more key pieces like P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, the Rockets weren’t mincing words about their goal: beating the Warriors.

“It’s the only thing we think about,” Rockets GM Daryl Morey told The Ryen Russillo Show in 2017. “I think I’m not supposed to say that, but we’re basically obsessed with ‘How do we beat the Warriors?’”

Morey’s plan has nearly come to fruition since then. Behind the megastar play of Harden, the addition of Paul, the rise of Clint Capela, and a new-found defensive identity, Houston has had bonafide success against Golden State.

In these past two regular seasons, Houston has dominated the matchup 5-1, including winning three games this season. And in their second Western Conference finals series in four years, Houston was actually able to get a 3-2 lead with homecourt advantage. The view of this rivalry might have even more contentious if Paul had never suffered an injury in the playoffs.

Flash forward to today, just a few days after Curry’s “statement game” comments, and Houston is finally in a position to have fun with their opposition.

“Yeah, well, they should have probably said it before the game,” D’Antoni said jokingly about Curry’s comments.

Clint Capela was also vocal about Curry’s statement.

It isn’t the first time the Rockets center directly challenged the Warriors. Just last playoffs ahead of their series, Capela outright said he believed Houston was better than the Warriors.

While joking and prodding is all well and fun, it should be refreshing for Houston to be called outright by the Warriors’ leader, and unprompted no less. The Rockets have finally won enough games against the Warriors to really feel like they can call them out without having to concede that the matchup has been one-sided. And Curry believes Houston is elite enough to call out without any shame - they’re good enough to actually want to beat and even “send a statement.”

Houston is now only 3.5 games behind Golden State for first place in the West. With the second-place Nuggets slated to play the Rockets and Warriors one more time each this season, this game means a lot more than bragging rights for all three teams in the long run.