OAKLAND, Calif. -- A big smile broke out on Clint Capela's face as he was being asked a question about the meaning of the Houston Rockets' clinching the regular-season series against the Golden State Warriors.
Capela intentionally wasn't nearly as bold as he was under similar circumstances last season, when he declared to ESPN that the Rockets were the better team. He settled with expressing confidence without uttering any words that could end up on bulletin boards in the two-time defending champions' locker room.
"We have a team that has a lot of potential," Capela said after the Rockets pulled off a 118-112 win on Saturday at Oracle Arena, despite reigning MVP James Harden's absence due to flu-like symptoms and a cervical strain in his neck. "We have a lot of guys that are capable of a lot of things defensively and offensively.
"Obviously, it's just the regular season. I'm not going to get fired up like last year. I'm just going to stay focused on one game at a time and thinking about the playoffs because we all know in the playoffs it's a different atmosphere."
The Rockets have won all three meetings with the Warriors this season. They won without Chris Paul in their first visit to Oracle Arena and without Harden on this occasion. They'll have a chance to complete the regular-season sweep March 13 in Houston.
This comes on the heels of Houston pushing Golden State to seven games in last season's Western Conference semifinals, a result many within the Rockets organization refer to as being "a hamstring away from a championship," after the Rockets built a 3-2 series lead before Paul went down with a strained hamstring.
The Rockets have every right to believe they can beat the Warriors in a playoff series. Yet they're well aware that means nothing unless they prove it in the postseason.
"I truly believe that we're their toughest opponent," said guard Eric Gordon, who led the Rockets with 25 points. "We've got to continue playing, trying to be a championship team. They know who they are. This is another game for them, but this is a special night for us."
The night started with the Rockets jumping to a 15-0 lead, pouncing on a Golden State team that was perhaps lulled to sleep with Harden remaining at the team hotel. Houston's lead ballooned to as many as 20 points, and the Rockets withstood a Warriors rally before closing out the game, guided by the steady hand of Paul, who finished with 23 points and a season-high 17 assists.
But there was a subdued mood, not a celebration, in the visitors' locker room. It has been a rocky season for the Rockets, who entered the season with a championship-or-bust mentality, only to dig themselves a huge hole with a slow start.
Houston (34-25, fifth in the West) has too much work left to do to get too excited about a win over the Warriors, even without Harden, whose historic streak of 32 consecutive 30-plus-point performances was put on hold.
"Don't make too much of it. It's a good win," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We played well. They didn't play as well. Especially in the first half, they didn't play very good. They might not have seen Harden and gone, 'Oh.' Sometimes you have a letdown. There's all kinds of reasons, but all we know is we go on to the next one."
The Rockets' regular-season success against the Warriors means "nothing," according to Paul.
"You can come in here and win on a Monday night in February or a Tuesday night in November or December, but in the playoffs, it's when you've got to beat a team four out of seven times," Paul said. "It's great we won tonight, but in two days, you'll forget this. We all will."