Look. If we are being honest with each other, here, let’s acknowledge what we all know: The Rockets are 100 percent dead in this series, have virtually no chance whatsoever even to push it to a seventh game, and could spend Game 2 jump-kicking each other in the face for all the good they can do by even trying to make adjustments to what the Warriors did in Game 1. It’s over, and so is the season, and the only thing that can make any of it not-over is both Steph Curry and Kevin Durant falling down a mine shaft that leads directly to the boiling magma guts of planet earth. It would be silly to pretend some other thing.
They’re gonna have Game 2 anyway, and Games 3 and 4—but almost certainly not Game 5—so let’s talk about some stuff that went wrong for the Rockets in Game 1. Chris Paul, in typical Chris Paul fashion, cobbled together a decent-looking box-score line (23 points on 17 shots, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, and one measly turnover) while also doing a very convincing impersonation of a sinkhole in the middle of Houston’s offense. His dismal isolation acts—God, it makes me sick that an NBA team won 65 games and made the conference finals with these bullshit anti-basketball dribble-dribble-dribble solos as the foundation of its attack—were just as annoying as James Harden’s but exponentially more pointless and embarrassing, just these sad, flat-footed wastes of time, leading in virtually all cases either to a contested desperation jumper or to a harmless pump-fake and an awkward dump-off pass with not enough time left on the shot-clock to do anything worthwhile. The Warriors defended these with one hand, using the other to stifle their yawns.
James Harden put up 41 points on 24 shots, and so you go Oh wow, so much firepower, and against the Warriors, too, but it’s bullshit. Golden State checked him just fine after his flurry in the opening minutes, generously accommodating the Rockets’ desire to match him up with Steph Curry and rarely sending a second defender to meet him anywhere but at the rim. They were happy to let him go off, correctly figuring it’d come at the cost of his teammates doing nothing but waiting for spot-up shots in the corners, where the Rockets hide them on every possession to make sure they don’t crowd the only two guys on the team who are permitted the use of their skills. Harden could average 45 points in this series, on 56-percent shooting, and get swept.
The irony here is that it cost the Warriors nothing at all to let the Rockets turn Steph into a full-time defender. Mostly that’s because, can you believe it, standing still at the top of the key while James Harden rocks the ball to sleep between his knees isn’t actually all that exhausting for world-class professional athletes. But, also, it’s because the Warriors had more than enough firepower at the other end of the court to hang a double-digit loss on the Rockets in their own building with Steph doing nothing more than flitting along the outer edges of the action, letting the game come to him and never even really hunting for his own shot. That, in turn, partly is due to the fact that the Warriors have Kevin Durant, but more importantly it’s because the Warriors know more ways to score than standing around like fucking idiots while their Designated Ball User dribbles a Morse Code War and Peace into the hardwood in 22-second chapters.
Who else counts on the Rockets? Anybody? Whatever accounts for Eric Gordon’s magical regular season, it wore off more than a month ago and he is basically just Chris Childs right now, a short, pear-shaped guy who throws laser-beam jumpshots at the bottom of the rim. Print out your “Clint Capela is the key to beating the Warriors!” blogs and eat them.
A funny thing about Rocket-ball is, a team doesn’t need a lot of reps to get good at it; if anything, practicing it a lot might work to a team’s detriment. Sure, as the Rockets have shown, it’s a solid mathematical proposition over the course of a regular season. Letting two of the best isolation players in the NBA chuck up as many step-back threes as they possibly can and hoping the percentages break your way is a fine bet to make on a macro level. It’s a bet that can get you 65 wins and the one seed. The problem is it’s also a bet that leaves you with very little to do in the face of an opponent who so greatly reduces the margin for error. Shoot until your fingers are numb and the nylon is threadbare against the Warriors; they’ll just shoot right back.
What adjustments can the Rockets even try to make, at the end of a season spent doing nothing but playing a numbers game? Are all the rotation players who haven’t done much but stand around around waiting for James Harden or Chris Paul to feed them spot-up three-pointers suddenly going to start cutting and coming off pin-downs? Are Paul and Harden somehow going to discover a way to shoot and make even more threes? It’s a little late to ask for more, and the Rockets are designed in such a way that there’s nothing to really ask for in the first place.
A brightly funny point Golden State took several opportunities to demonstrate in basketball terms last night is this: Houston has spent all season repping away at dismal, intentionally stagnant isolation-ball... and they’re still not as good at it as the Warriors, who do it less than virtually anyone. The simple reason for this is that the Warriors have Kevin Durant and the Rockets do not.
Look how many of those buckets are simple isolations; look how mercilessly Durant sizes up and incinerates whichever sack of crap (or two) dares guard him. My favorite is at around 1:25, when Andre Iguodala feeds the ball down to Durant in the mid-post where he’s matched up against P.J. Tucker, and Marv Albert says, “Iguodala for Durant, has a mismatch.” Indeed he did: He had a mismatch against Houston’s best individual defender, the guy designated for the grim job of checking him all night. “Kevin Durant has a mismatch” is the safest thing to say in all the English language. Bark it out the next time you’re wandering the aisles of your local supermarket. The time of day doesn’t even matter. It’s always true. Kevin Durant has a mismatch.
There are basketball reasons why the Warriors played more iso-ball last night than they usually do: Steph’s still ramping back up to full speed and their guard rotation is thinned out by injury, so letting Durant cook one-on-one is a way to limit everybody else’s exposure to fatigue and twisted ankles and whatnot. But it’s also just really funny, and cruel, whether intentionally or not. They wiped away Houston’s entire identity in one game, and revealed it as just the very stupidest thing to waste time developing in the first place, like dedicating a year of your life to perfecting the craft of flipping a light switch. What good is it? Golden State’s lights are brighter, and they can turn them on just fine.