The pre-series nightmare, for anyone who is a Warriors fan or particularly despises the Rockets’ brand of basketball, went something like this: The Warriors, a free-flowing, elegant offensive team that so often makes the experience of watching them feel transcendent, would be outpaced by the cold calculations of the Rockets’ optimized simulation model, which would produce just enough made threes and cheaply earned free throws to win the series. Such an outcome may have been unsatisfying, but it would have at least been an interesting battle. Like Kasparov vs. Deep Blue, but with a lot more sweat.
What we’ve gotten instead has been much worse. The Rockets’ roulette ball has mostly betrayed them, and yet they still lead the series 3-2 because the Warriors seem to have lost themselves. Chris Paul and James Harden shot a combined 11-for-40 last night; the Rockets as a team shot 30 percent from three-point range; James Harden has missed his last 20 three-point attempts. Somehow that all added up to a 98-94 win. If any team should be a prisoner to its own fluctuating efficiencies, it’s the Rockets, but the Warriors were simply incapable of taking advantage in Game 5.
The Warriors have already been infected by the Rockets’ brain worms, and last night provided no indication that they are close to purging themselves. Gone is that beautiful, orchestral Golden State offense that never stops moving and humming and destroying. In its place there is a lot of dribbling, a lot of standing around, and plenty of possessions undone by indecision and sloppy passing. The lasting image of the Golden State Warriors as they exist right now is that of Kevin Durant, his teammates banished from his orbit, posting up 17 feet from the hoop:
Kevin Durant is the best scorer in the NBA, and Steve Kerr will be quick to tell you that a possession featuring Durant isolated on the wing or the block is likely to produce positive results for the Warriors. This is all true, and perhaps this series will still bear out what at first seemed so obvious—that the Warriors are simply too good to lose to this Rockets team, and that no matter how they choose to play, their raw ability to make shots will eventually carry the day.
But the thing that made the Warriors The Warriors in the first place was never just the talents of the players on the roster, but their ability to use those talents to complement and lift each other. Tossing the ball to Kevin Durant on the block over and over and over again is something you’d expect the Knicks to do if Durant had the misfortune of playing for the Knicks. The entire point of Durant playing for the Golden State Warriors is to prevent him from ever having to play like an upmarket Carmelo Anthony in the conference finals. The team that has reached unprecedented heights by continuing to open up new possibilities for itself has suddenly run out of ideas, and it sucks to watch.
So this is my plea to the Warriors: Please just be the Warriors again. Maybe it won’t work, be it because Klay Thompson is hiding an injury or because Andre Iguodala isn’t there to help grease possessions, but the current state of things isn’t working out, for the Warriors or for anyone watching this series. Last night’s game featured some of the biggest stars in the NBA and came down to the final possession, and yet it felt like watching a traffic jam. The Warriors can fix this, and it’s time for them to start running and screening and cutting and passing and shooting like they always have, for our sake and their own.