Editor's note: Grant Liffmann (@grantliffmann) is the co-host of Warriors Outsiders, which airs on NBC Sports Bay Area 90 minutes before each home game and 60 minutes after every game. Each week, Grant will drop his Outsider Observation on the state of the Dubs.
It is time to give credit where credit is due. The Houston Rockets have been outplaying the Warriors the last couple of games and the series has been as close as advertised. All four games so far in these Western Conference Semifinals have been decided by five or fewer points, making a tied series seem appropriate.
In Games 3 and 4, the Rockets imposed their will on the Warriors, played with more urgency and physicality. Unlike the Clippers, who also played with grit and hustle, the Rockets run a very disciplined offense centered around a superstar that is playing up to his high standards.
Meanwhile, Houston's defense is quite skilled at switching on the perimeter which makes it more difficult for the Dubs to fire from deep. The Rockets have been crashing the boards with ferocity, led by undervalued yet dominant wing P.J. Tucker, exposing the Warriors at one of their biggest weaknesses.
So if Houston is going to play this well from here on out, where can the Warriors improve to retake the lead in the series?
Splash Brothers cold
The most obvious and glaring improvement will need to come from the Splash Brothers. It has been well-chronicled that Steph Curry has had an underwhelming series thus far, dealing with a dislocated middle finger and a sore ankle. In Game 4, however, Curry showed much improvement, attacking and finishing at the rim with ease, playing effective defense without fouling unnecessarily, and finding his teammates for buckets.
In fact, Steph's eight assists last game were his highest total in the last 21 regular season and playoff games, dating back to March 18. The one clear hole in his game has been his three-point shot, where he has now made fewer than five 3s for the eighth straight game. Coming home for Game 5 at Oracle, I'd anticipate a revival for Steph from deep.
The more subtle -- but also significant -- disparity in the series thus far has been the shooting guard battle. To much surprise, at least from the Warriors side, Eric Gordon has been outplaying Klay Thompson. Gordon has been an underrated piece of a very skilled Rockets team, potentially taking the role as the second-most dangerous player after James Harden. Gordon has consistently attacked the Warriors defense, especially after made baskets and early-shot clock situations before the defense can get settled.
Meanwhile, Klay Thompson has not found his shooting stroke. Typically when Klay is looking for his offensive game, he steps up his normally impressive defense. But lately and most specifically in Game 4, Klay struggled to defend Gordon and Harden. Thompson committed undisciplined fouls and let the Rockets catch him off guard on multiple occasions.
Klay is one of the most self-confident and unfazed players in the NBA, so it would be hard to imagine his struggles continuing much longer. Much like Curry, I'd expect Klay to blossom yet again in front of a raucous Oracle crowd.
The "Strength in Numbers" motto for the Warriors has not been a strength whatsoever this series. The depth of the bench has already been severely hindered with the loss of DeMarcus Cousins and the need for Andre Iguodala to join the starting lineup. However, key bench players that had been relied upon throughout the season are now struggling, and it is showing.
As anticipated, it has been hard to play Andrew Bogut this series because of the small-ball that the Rockets employ. Jordan Bell and Quinn Cook both have some specific weaknesses that the Warriors coaching staff thinks Houston will exploit, leaving them out of the rotation.
Kevon Looney, the most consistent and typically most effective role player against opponents like this, has not looked completely comfortable yet, though he has had momentary flashes of his old self. Alfonzo Mckinnie has provided some solid rebounding from the wing position, but can no longer be counted on to hit a much-needed corner three.
The biggest hole as of now, however, has been Shaun Livingston. The Warriors have long considered Livingston one of their most reliable players. But so far these playoffs, Livingston has been out of sorts and just a bit slow.
It is possible all the physical ailments and wear and tear he has been dealing with the entire season have finally caught up with him, but the Warriors need Shaun to step up if they plan to keep playing him for 15 minutes a game. He has been such a key cog in the Warriors dynasty and Steve Kerr will not lose faith in him. He is a veteran leader on the team, and I'd guess he has some big moments left in the tank.
Meanwhile, the role players for Houston have been efficient and effective, hitting their open 3s and hustling on defense. The Warriors need their bench to match the Rockets physicality and energy on the defensive end. Perhaps their shots will fall eventually too.
The Rockets are ready to fight and wrestle in the series. The Warriors will have to take the intensity that they've played with for the final minutes of these last couple games and extend it throughout the game.
The series has now become a best-of-three. If the Warriors shore up just a few of their issues, they should still win it.