I’m sure most Rockets fans are lovely people. The Rockets have a fine basketball organization, as creative and nimble and determined as any in the NBA. And James Harden genuinely is one of the most unstoppable offensive players in modern basketball history. Now. Can that team please get all the way out of my face, immediately, and possibly forever?
They had everything lined up in their favor Friday night, at home, in Game 6. Kevin Durant was ruled out for the remainder of the series with a calf strain, depriving the Warriors of their best player. That’s a huge loss for Golden State, and a huge advantage for the Rockets, who fancied themselves capable of competing with this Warriors team even at full strength. Hell, this Rockets team, from the makeup of their roster down to the nitty-gritties of their defensive approach and their Harden-centric, isolation-heavy, three-bombing offense, are designed as specifically as possible for the narrow task of competing with and beating the 2018-2019 Golden State Warriors.
And even in this game—which, in case you haven’t figured it out by now, the Rockets lost, 118–113—everything lined up for the Rockets to win. Steph Curry, the sole engine of Golden State’s Durant-less offense, got himself into early foul trouble, and failed to score a single point in the first half.
Listen. That massive edge is as much as you can ever ask for in a matchup against the Warriors. That’s it. On the road. No Boogie Cousins. No Kevin Durant. Andrew Bogut in the starting lineup. Jordan Bell and Quinn Cook and Alfonzo McKinnie off the bench. A complete no-show first-half from Stephen Curry. This is like facing the Black Knight after he’s had both arms and one leg lopped off. The friggin’ Wizards would be disappointed to lose a game to the Warriors under those conditions. The remaining Warriors are sharp and tough and fearless, sure, but if you can’t cruise past them under these circumstances, that’s all there is! Etch it into stone! You are not a championship contender while this team exists.
That’s worth bringing up because the joyless, bloodless, game theory-ass siege-style basketball advanced by the Rockets makes for a grim, nutrient-rich but wildly flavorless nightly meal. Harden step-backs are amazing as an athletic feat but actually extremely dry as an entire offensive playbook. A man can only stand to see Chris Paul bait contact and then hurl himself into the ground so many times. The question of whether this stuff works has been answered, many times over. Curiosity over the limits of this miserable straightforwardness, it turns out, is exhaustible. If you are not a Houston Rockets fan, there’s no way that curiosity can possibly survive under the weight of so much juiceless, ruthlessly optimized Moreyball.
And, anyway, we now seem to have identified its limits, or at least the limits of such a narrow application of this strain of game theory. Even against a massively wounded and undermanned Warriors team, the Rockets couldn’t just loosen up and play some damn basketball. They still forced the game to crawl along at a grueling 97.50 pace, a number that would’ve been third-slowest in the NBA across the regular season, but only slightly slower than Houston’s regular pace (98.43). They couldn’t break the mold, push the ball in transition, make quick decisive moves to the cup. Not even with Steph Curry and Draymond Green in foul trouble, with slow-ass Bogut on the floor, with stiffs like Jonas Jerebko doing the defending. The Rockets don’t have variations in their style of play; they don’t have freedom and fluidity and verve. They’ve whittled the sport of basketball all the way down to one thing, and that thing is a guard standing at the top of the key, using a whole possession to get a defender to lean a little bit one way, so that either a three-pointer or a foul can be produced. That’s it.
Contrast that with even the Warriors, whose fans are fucking herbs and who have felt more inevitable than Thanos for half a decade, and who I am deeply conflicted about having rooted for for so much as a single quarter. When this game got tight, the best and coolest Warriors players did cool basketball things. Classic Steph shit has never been so welcome in a basketball series as it was down the stretch Friday night:
The word “fraud” gets thrown around maybe a little more freely than it should be, here and elsewhere, but damn. If your basketball operation is built over the course of years for the purpose of beating the Warriors, and here they are, and this is the Warriors team you get, this wildly depleted unit, on the road, and after deploying even the single most shameful weapon in your anti-Warriors arsenal, you still get bounced in six games, and closed out at home, that’s it! The Rockets are frauds. Get them out of here!