OAKLAND -- Warriors coach Mark Jackson doesn't think his team has peaked; he believes it has another level.
"We're not playing our best basketball right now," Jackson said after a spirited practice Thursday. "We certainly were better earlier in the year, so we've got another level."
Friday night would be a good time for Golden State to reach it again. For the second consecutive game, the Warriors get a chance to exact revenge on a team that has owned them. But unlike Sacramento, whose ineptitude aided the Warriors' narrow victory Wednesday, Houston represents a much truer test of whether Golden State is game for a stretch run.
The Rockets are two games behind the Warriors and chasing them for the Western Conference's No. 6 seed. And it's going to take the old Warriors -- as in those of three months ago -- to ward off the potent squad that has given them headaches in two previous meetings.
Host Houston blew out Golden State in the first meeting, tying the NBA record for 3-pointers in a game to rub a little salt in the Warriors' wound. Then one week later, the Rockets beat Golden State on its own floor.
"We definitely owe them something just like we owed Sacramento something," said Klay Thompson, whose late 3-pointer was the difference Wednesday. "I feel like we're a better team, but we've got to prove it. They've caught us on two nights we were off. They put 140 on us in Houston, which was very embarrassing."
Warriors forward David Lee said it's become trendy for the players to spend part of pregame watching other games. It's a scene that provokes a little perspective.
On one hand, especially for a young team, these are good times. Golden State is in the thick of a playoff race. It is experiencing the pressures, the momentum swings, basketball at higher stakes.
Few on the Warriors roster have been through this before, so it makes sense that they've struggled adjusting to the late-season intensity. Most are confident they will figure this thing out and get rolling again.
"We are a united team, a together team, a very dangerous team," Jackson said. "I've got great confidence in my guys, and I'm excited about what is going to take place. I think the adversity and the tough stretch ultimately will make us a better basketball team."
But it also raises the question of whether the Warriors can handle this.
This isn't just about making the playoffs. Odds favor the Warriors to make the postseason. Jackson said he and his staff are already talking as if it's a foregone conclusion.
Utah, currently in the eighth and final West slot, has a bunch of road games, major holes in the backcourt and the pressure of a surging Lakers squad. Even Los Angeles has to win a majority of its remaining games to get in.
So this is also about playing well at the right time, about answering the challenge. This is about the Warriors positioning themselves to make some real noise and not just limp into the postseason.
Three of their starters are young -- including point guard Stephen Curry, considered by many the team's best player -- and have never gone through this grind. Lee, in his eighth season, has never been through a successful playoff push, and starting center Andrew Bogut, who has played in the postseason once (as a
The Warriors have three veterans on the bench -- guard Jarrett Jack, forwards Richard Jefferson and Carl Landry -- who have experience in this area. But are they enough to compensate for the inexperience?
Since Feb. 5, the first meeting against the Rockets, Golden State has allowed an NBA-high 133 3-pointers. During that span, the Warriors have allowed 107.9 points per game (27th) and have been outscored by 108 points (26th).
Maybe the Warriors already have peaked and now we're really seeing where they stack up. Maybe their early-season accomplishments were the aberration and this is closer to how good they are.
Or, maybe, this is a bump in the road, and the Warriors, winners of two straight, are about to turn it up a notch.
"We've proven, this group of guys has proven," Jackson said, "that they're more than capable of handling adversity and responding."