NEW ORLEANS — Rajon Rondo and Draymond Green have won NBA titles and never have been known to shy away from conflict on the court.
Now their combustible convergence in the playoffs is providing a spicy subplot to the Western Conference semifinal series between New Orleans and Golden State.
"We're here to fight," Rondo said following New Orleans' lopsided Game 3 victory that trimmed the Warriors' series lead to 2-1. "With my guys on the court, I'm going to fight as hard as I can ... and do whatever it takes."
Green and Rondo had to be separated after whistles twice in the first three games — never mind some other antics in the flow of the game — and they'll be back at it again in one of two pivotal Game 4s to be played on Sunday. The other pits Houston against Utah in a series that the Rockets lead 2-1.
The Rondo-Green sideshow is compelling because of what both players mean to their teams. They are not the type of trash-talking, loud-mouths who otherwise play marginal roles. They are accomplished leaders who produce. Rondo had 21 assists in Game 3, while Green nearly had a triple-double with 11 points, 12 rebounds and nine assist. It just so happens they also are renowned for their masterful command of psychological gamesmanship.
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry might have the best perspective; he's coached them both.
Gentry was a Warriors assistant on Golden State's 2015 championship team and maintains a friendly off-court relationship with Green.
"If he's on your team you love him and if he's not on your team you despise him — and to me, those are the kind of players that I like to have," Gentry said of Green. "I appreciate who he is and how he plays because he's all about winning. And if you're verbally weak, he's going to take advantage of that."
Warriors coach Steve Kerr calls Green his team's "heart and soul," and its "engine." Kerr also added lightheartedly that the fact Green hasn't been assessed a technical foul in the postseason is "one of the great stats in this year's playoffs."
Green bristled at the notion that he started any of the dust-ups with Rondo, insinuating that Rondo was the instigator. He asserted that his awareness of Rondo's intentions is why he hasn't been suckered into escalations that could result in a technical foul or ejection.
"I'm not an idiot," Green said. "I can see what they're trying to accomplish a mile away."
Green added: "At some point, somebody's got to tell the truth. It ain't Draymond this time."
But Green has been in the face of other Pelicans, tangling with All-Star Anthony Davis behind the play in one instance and yelling at the Pelicans' bench in another. Green's antics even agitated TNT studio host and former player Charles Barkley, who said he wanted to punch Green in the face. Barkley later apologized for his word choice, if not his sentiment.
Pelicans forward Solomon Hill explained that Rondo — accomplished, playoff-savvy veteran that he is — seeks to neutralize Green's psychological effect by taking on a "big brother" role for the Pelicans.
"If somebody's yelling in your ear, you're going to get to a point where it's about respect," said Hill, who refers to Rondo by his nickname, Do. "And that's kind of where Do is. Do's like: 'We're going to be respected. You're not going to come out here and dance around and disrespect us as competitors.'"
A closer look at Sunday's games:
WARRIORS AT PELICANS
Warriors lead 2-1. Game 4, 3:30 p.m. EDT, ABC.
NEED TO KNOW: Although the Warriors lead the series, the Pelicans have not lost at home yet in the playoffs and have improved considerably in each game of this series since losing by 22 in the opener. New Orleans lost by only five points in Game 2 and then won by 19 when the series moved to New Orleans.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Warriors stars Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant. They combined to miss 36 of 59 shots in Game 3 and will be eager to regain their shooting strokes. "I still don't think K.D. or Steph was aggressive enough," Green said. "I've said to both of them, I need them to be aggressive. They're our guys. That's who we're going to to get buckets. We need them to be aggressive at all times and they'll be that way" on Sunday.
INJURY UPDATE: Curry will be in his third game back after missing more than a month with a sprained left knee. Kerr said he wasn't surprised to see Curry's production dip in his second game back. "Game 2 is always the hardest one after you come back from an injury," Kerr said, adding that "it just takes some time" for NBA players to regain their energy, legs and rhythm.
PRESSURE IS ON: The Pelicans, who don't want to go back to the West Coast down 3-1 and on the brink of elimination. "We've just got to avoid any kind of letdown," Gentry said, adding that his players "understand who we're playing and they understand the situation."
ROCKETS AT JAZZ
Rockets lead 2-1. Game 4, 8 p.m. EDT, ESPN.
NEED TO KNOW: Following a surprising home loss in Game 2, the Rockets roared back to life in Game 3, picking apart the Jazz on both ends of the court. A 39-point first quarter put Houston back on track. The Rockets shot 59 percent from the field before halftime and never looked back. "From the beginning of the game, we made a conscious effort to get stops and offensively push the pace and get shots, and we did that," Rockets guard James Harden said.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Rockets sixth man Eric Gordon has been a tough cover for the Jazz. Gordon broke out for 25 points on 8-of-13 shooting in Game 3, resembling what he did against Utah in three regular season games in which he averaged 21 points on 48.4 percent shooting.
ROOKIE STRUGGLES: Utah's Donovan Mitchell is averaging 16 points on 32 percent shooting in the series while filling in at point guard for Ricky Rubio. He went just 4-of-16 for 10 points in Game 3. "I didn't really do much," Mitchell said. "That can't happen. ... It's like I would have been better off not showing up — and that's what I did. I didn't show up for my teammates. I'll fix it."
PRESSURE IS ON: The Jazz. A second straight home loss would put Utah in the unenviable position of needing two victories in Houston to stay alive.