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Which Western Conference teams are the Warriors’ biggest challengers?

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OAKLAND – Within a one-week span, the Warriors have shown split identities.
They experienced a 33-point loss to a possible NBA championship contender (Boston Celtics), marking the team’s most lopsided loss of the season.  Two days later, they responded with a commanding 17-point win against the Western Conference’s second-best team (Denver Nuggets). Two days after that, the Warriors labored through an eventual loss to the Western Conference’s worst team (Phoenix Suns).
Which version will we see of the Warriors (45-21) when they visit the Houston Rockets (42-25) on Wednesday? How about for the rest of their four-game trip with stops in Oklahoma City (Saturday), San Antonio (March 18) and Minnesota (March 21)?
Who knows. Despite or perhaps because of that that uncertainty, Warriors coach Steve Kerr admitted that “I kind of like getting out on the road right now.” After all, Houston, Oklahoma City and San Antonio are all playoff-bound teams.
“It’s not going to determine the fate of our season. But we need to connect better and put some momentum together game after game,” Kerr said. “That would be a good place to start.”
Perhaps then, the Warriors might show some clarity on what their identity will become. In fairness, the Warriors likely won’t show their true selves until the playoffs start. But can these games convey any clairvoyance on which Western Conference teams could challenge them the most in a presumed Western Conference Finals matchup? Below is a look at the Western Conference landscape.
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(Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 
Team: Houston Rockets
Record: 42-25
Head-to-head matchup: 0-3
What makes the Rockets a unique challenge: The Warriors have lost to Houston three times this season and five of their last six. And they have done so by allowing the Rockets to exploit various weaknesses.
Though the Warriors are shooting more efficiently (47.4 percent) against Houston (43.2 percent), the Rockets have outscored the Warriors (120-110.7) for three simple reasons. The Rockets have outshot the Warriors in 3-point attempts (17.3 – 10.7). Houston has 67 free-throw attempts to the Warriors’ 57. And the Rockets have also collected 29 steals and forced 34 turnovers.
Of course, the Rockets have leaned on James Harden, who has averaged 35.5 points per game and 9.0 assists. In an eventual 135-134 overtime loss on Jan. 3, Harden nailed a 30-foot 3 with 51.4 seconds left in regulation to force overtime. Harden then made a dagger 3 over both Draymond Green and Klay Thompson with one second left in overtime.
But the Rockets did not just lean on Harden’s heroics. He missed the last Warriors-Rockets game on Feb. 23 because of neck spasm and an illness. No matter. The Warriors lost, 118-112, after the Rockets opened the game with a 15-0 lead. The Rockets featured plenty of offensive depth with Eric Gordon (25 points), Chris Paul (23), Kenneth Faried (20), PJ Tucker (18) and Gerald Green (10).
Yes, regular-season games are different than a prolonged playoff series. But the Rockets have formula to beat the Warriors.
Why the Warriors shouldn’t feel worried about the Rockets : And yet, the Warriors should not feel threatened with the Rockets in a playoff series. Why? A few reasons.
One, Harden has worn down in the postseason for two consecutive years. With an even heavier workload this season, why should this play out any differently?
Second, the Warriors’ regular-season results against Houston are misleading. In the Warriors’ first loss to the Rockets, Kevin Durant and Green appeared in their first game together since Green’s one-game suspension for their argument. The Warriors were not in a good headspace. In the Warriors’ second loss to Houston, that outcome came down to Harden making a difficult shot. And in the Warriors’ third loss to Houston, they were struggling through the NBA dog days and appeared less compelled to compete given Harden’s absence.
Third, the Rockets’ isolation-heavy offense won’t be as effective against the Warriors in a playoff series. Sure, the Rockets will likely benefit from targeting DeMarcus Cousins in Harden isolation plays. That strategy will become less effective considering the Warriors will have time to make more adjustments. They also presumably will be more locked in defensively with a better conditioned Cousins, a more engaged Green and with an insurance policy in Andrew Bogut. Meanwhile, the Warriors will have two options with either blending in their ball-movement heavy offense catered to Stephen Curry and Thompson, or feeding to Durant in the post.
(Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group) 
Team: Denver Nuggets
Record: 43-22
Head-to-head matchup: 2-1
What makes the Nuggets a unique challenge: One of the many reasons why the Warriors want home-court advantage: they would like to avoid playing in the altitude in Denver. Even for championship tested teams such as the Warriors, that factor can always present a risk with either the team’s readiness to start a game or energy level in crunch time.
It also helps that the Nuggets also boast plenty of depth. In the Warriors’ 100-98 loss to Denver on Oct. 21, the Nuggets baited the Warriors into plenty of fouls (29) and turnovers (18). Sure, chalk those two things up to early regular-season hiccups. But the Warriors have struggled in those two areas all season. The Warriors have averaged 21.6 fouls per game and 14.1 turnovers per game.
Why the Warriors shouldn’t feel worried about the Nuggets: The Warriors handled the Nuggets easily in their past two regular-season games. In a 142-111 win in Denver on Jan. 15, the Warriors recorded their second-largest point differential of the season. The Warriors also set a franchise record for most points (51) and 3’s in a first quarter (10-of-14).  Just this past week, the Warriors beat up on the Nuggets in almost every way imaginable. The Warriors held the Nuggets to a 37.9 percent clip and forced 16 turnovers. Cousins bullied All-Star center Nikola Jokic. And even with 16 turnovers, 28 fouls and 21 turnovers, the Warriors had too much offensive depth for any of those things to matter.
Among all the Western Conference playoff matchups, Cousins will likely benefit the most from Jokic. Cousins might not like hearing that since he has become the poster child of the Warriors’ inconsistent defense. And in fairness to Cousins, the Warriors played inconsistent defensive before his return and when he has sat on the bench. Still, Jokic is a plodding center that will not test Cousins’ wind as much. Considering both players are skilled big men, Cousins can rely more on his 6-foot-11, 270-pound frame and smarts to limit Jokic.
(Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group) 
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
Record:  41-26
Head-to-head matchup: 1-1
What makes the Thunder a unique challenge : There would be plenty of elements to make this a compelling playoff series. Aren’t they obvious?
Russell Westbrook would likely post countless triple doubles and have chippy exchanges with either Durant, Green or both. Paul George has averaged career highs this season in points (28.2), rebounds (8.2) and assists (4.2). Thunder center Steven Adams would give Cousins and Bogut a good test with his burly physique, effective screen setting and passing. Of course, the Oklahoma City crowd would jeer the Warriors plenty given who they are.
Should the Warriors experience any adversity involving any X’s and O’s or personality conflicts, it would not be ideal for this to take place against the Thunder.
Why the Warriors shouldn’t feel worried about the Thunder : For better and for worse, the regular-season results do not matter in this one. The Warriors won their season opener with Westbrook sideline because of right knee surgery and admittedly struggled with early-season conditioning. In their 123-95 loss to the Thunder on Nov. 21, the Warriors lacked much offensive cohesion without Curry and Green.
The Warriors are currently healthy, and that appears unlikely to change. Say some worst-case scenario arises regarding an off night for any of the All-Stars. Or Durant, Green or Cousins have some testy moments? The Warriors have enough depth to absorb those challenges.
(Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
Record: 40-26
Head-to-head matchup: 2-2
What makes the Trail Blazers a unique challenge: Good luck to all 29 NBA teams trying to defend Portland’s Damian Lillard. Against the Warriors specifically, Damian Lillard has averaged 28.3 points while shooting 47.6 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3 along with 6.7 assists. Therefore, the Blazers always have a fighter’s chance to steal a game against the Warriors. That included when Lillard made a game-winning shot in what marked the Oakland native’s final game at Oracle Arena.
Why the Warriors should not feel threatened by the Blazers: What else makes the Warriors vulnerable? Usually, the Warriors would also need to worry about Portland guard C.J. McCollum. Through four regular-season games against the Warriors this season, however, McCollum has averaged 18 points while shooting 36.6 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3.
Though the Warriors lost twice to Portland, some asterisks are needed for this one. Credit Lillard for his game-winning shot, but the Warriors also unraveled with a Durant missed shot, a Curry turnover and a Thompson bad shooting night. In the Warriors’ other loss, they unraveled after Kerr was ejected after officials gave Green a Flagrant 1 foul. That resulted in the Blazers essentially scoring eight points in one possession.
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