Okay, yes, goddammit yes, I was wrong, the Houston Rockets, who tied the Western Conference Finals at two games apiece last night in Oakland, have a chance to win the series. A frighteningly strong one, if like me you break out in hives at the prospect of a Larry O’Brien trophy consecrating into canonical Championship Basketball Strategy Houston’s aesthetically and conceptually repugnant math-gaming iso-ball. They could get past the Warriors, and if they do, they could beat anybody.
This wouldn’t have to be a bad development, if it came as a result of the Warriors forcing the Rockets out of their stagnant hide-in-the-corners-and-watch-James-Harden-dribble bullshit into something resembling what basketball’s meant to be when practiced by more than one person simultaneously. That would have been cool and fine, like something out of an inspiring sports movie: The talented but internally fractious squad discovering in real time and on the (second-)biggest stage the joys and beauties of teeeeeamwork and shaaaaaaring and letting more than one guy play basketball at a time and achieving, together, a higher plane of existence. Or anyway it would have been entertaining TV, at least.
The real horror is, the exact opposite has happened. The Rockets are sticking with the abysmal isolation shit, and it’s the Warriors who have all but completely abandoned the hallmarks of their style of basketball, to play hideous Rocket-ball instead. (That this happened literally right after the first and only time I’ve set aside my longstanding hatred and rooted for them since they became The Steph Warriors is very ironic and funny! Also I’m going to bang my hand with a hammer now.)
Pretty much entirely gone is the imaginative, free-flowing, frictionless offensive stuff that made the Warriors, for most of the past few years, the best basketball team of all time. Possession after possession features the ball inert at the top of the key for endless seconds of shot-clock, waiting for Kevin Durant to ready himself for another dismal isolation. The brilliant, impish off-ball screen gauntlets Steph Curry used to dart through to free himself for quick-release three-pointers, or to wrench the defense into hopeless imbalance and spark those staggering drive-and-dish-and-drive-and-dish-and-drive-and-dish sequences that made the Warriors, at full tilt, the most terrifying machine I’ve ever rooted against like my life depended on it: They’re just simply not happening. Sometimes you can see the Warriors setting that stuff up, early in the shot-clock: Steph down on the baseline, in a tight bunch with two teammates, in position to sneak through a pair of elevator doors or slalom out to the corner or feint one way and spring a surprise screen on somebody else’s defender, before pivoting into the lane for a bullet pass from the top of the key ... and then they all just kinda stand there, and maybe lean on each other for a few seconds, waiting for Durant to pump up a long two. Like Rockets. When they’ve set screens, it hasn’t been to warp the defense and start a flurry of passes and cuts, but to setup an individual mismatch, and attack it one-on-one while everybody else watches. Like the Rockets do.
There are possible reasons for this, and they might even be defensible ones. Andre Iguodala, one of Golden State’s most important ballhandlers and passers and just generally a dude whose importance to the lubricity of their offense can’t be overstated, missed last night’s game with a leg injury. Klay Thompson hurt his leg in the early going and seemed stiff and tentative—more even than usual!—thereafter. For big chunks of the game, they had to make do with two and sometimes three dudes on the court who were threats neither to shoot nor to create a shot on their own and who thus demanded only minor defensive attention, which hampered their spacing and ball-movement and widened the Rockets’ margins for error on their switches. And Curry himself, another third-quarter blitzkrieg notwithstanding, still seems somewhat less than fully himself, his motor sputtery and his activity generally low.
But still! Unless the much-lauded theoretical underpinnings of the Warriors’ whole way of playing—that free, constant, and creative movement of both ball and bodies brings out the best in basketball players; that everyone’s job gets easier when everybody’s involved and engaged; that fun itself can be weaponized on a basketball court—were always lies, the solution to last night’s constraints isn’t less passing and cutting and stunting and styling, but more. Instead, the Warriors—the team I generally resent for its triumphal Golden Child fearlessness nearly as much as I despise the Rockets for their essential cowardly cynicism—shriveled away in retreat. They stood around waiting for Durant to come up with something in the first half; in the third quarter they stood around waiting for Steph to rain miracles; in the fourth they just kinda looked at each other in a panic, somehow out of ideas despite never having actually given any a try.
What is this shit? Surely your various Zach Lowes and Mike Pradas and so on will eat the tape and identify defensive stuff the Rockets did to nudge the Warriors away from what makes them the Warriors and toward letting the ball so regularly just fucking die at the top of the key. It’ll illuminate things a little, but it won’t fully explain how the best offensive team basically ever, the squad that adopted looseness itself as the foundation of a historic run of excellence, let itself get suckered into the exact opposite of its own style of play.
My theory is brain worms. They caught brain worms in Houston.