Ground Control

Oh, how quickly we forget. Or maybe it’s just about wanting to believe in something, anything, so much right now, surrounded by *gestures more broadly than any wingspan at the NBA combine could contain* all of this, that we can talk ourselves into believing in the most irrational things. Just look at [caters to your political leaning by making a correspondingly tactful reference to current proceedings]. Somewhere between Roger Daltrey and George W. Bush, however, we were supposed to have learned not to get fooled again. And yet, here we are, forcing ourselves into this dance once again like a spurned defender asking for a second helping of James Harden.

Are we really going to do this? We’re going to do this. Alright, fine, let’s do this: Houston had a problem, and then it remembered its own solution, and now the Western Conference Finals are tied 1-1. This doesn’t solve anything.

If we, collectively, are supposed to buy into Houston as the chosen team, and Mike D’Antoni as the one who has anointed James Harden, Chris Paul and their merry band of stone-cold mathematicians, then we have to throw on our Bill Nye caps and consider the following:

  • The Rockets vocally played for home court advantage, specifically with the Warriors in mind. From GM Daryl Morey on down, this was specifically cited as their goal.
  • Other teams to whom the Warriors lost their season series include the Portland Trail Blazers, Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder, all of whom decided not to prolong their inevitable defeats at the hands of an angry Golden State team and bowed out in the first round. The Utah Jazz, who also won their season series against the Warriors, went ahead and crapped out against this very Rockets team in five games.
  • Teams with whom the Warriors split their season series included the Denver Nuggets, who decided against showing up to the playoffs at all on the last night of the regular season, and the Sacramento Kings, who, lottery luck notwithstanding, are a poorly-run basketball franchise.
  • Of the ten players who have averaged greater than four isolation possessions per game in these playoffs, James Harden is averaging the most points per possession, with 1.13, per NBA.com, whence all of the below isolation stats will come.
  • Kevin Durant is fifth, with 0.96.
  • Harden is leading the league in iso possessions per game in these playoffs, with 10.6; Durant again arrives fifth, with 5.2[1].
  • Harden also leads everybody with 25 or more iso possessions in frequency; this poor bastard decides to tango 37.0% of the time, even. Durant musters a Charleston only 19.4% of the time.
  • Game 1 was a tale of Harden going full-on Mikhail Baryshnikov with whomever would accept him, and he put in a 14-24 performance, including 5-9 from three and 8-10 at the Goodwill, for 41 points. The Rockets lost by 13.
  • Game 2 was a Broadway revival of Harden’s West Coast story for Durant, as he went 13-22 overall, and 3-7 from distance, on his way to a 38-point night.
  • Durant has accumulated a grand total of one (1) assist in this series.
  • Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, the latest in a line of top-flight would-be wing stoppers to face the Warriors, has exactly zero confidence in his recently-dislocated shoulder and has been anemic from the corners on threes, which then carries to the defensive end
  • Steph Curry returned from a knee injury on May 1st and insists he’s fine, OHKAY‽

So, alright, the Rockets beat the Warriors by more in Game 2 than the Warriors beat the Rockets by in Game 1. The widely-cited recent track record made everyone aware that the Rockets had won the season series – which, by the way, the Rockets won their two games by a combined total of nine points, one fewer than the Warriors won theirs against the Rockets. By all accounts, Houston was constructed in order to beat Golden State, contracts to Eric Gordon[2], P.J. Tucker and Ryan Anderson be damned.

Right before the series began, I tweeted the following:

What I figured might happen was that the Rockets, having seized home court, would stomp, in relative terms (so, like, by maybe double-digits?), the Warriors in Game 1, and then the engaged Golden State team we’ve all grown to fear would rear its obscenely efficient head in Game 2. The opposite happened, and going into Game 3, we’re effectively back to square 1.

Except, we most certainly are not. Golden State stole back home court, and even following its win, Houston has to go to Oracle Arena for two games against one of the NBA’s rowdiest crowds. What D’Antoni, Harden and Paul set out to do – namely, optimize basketball – is a pinnacle the Warriors have already reached, albeit rather rarely in the Kevin Durant era.

That’s what Durant does. Even with Curry struggling, there wasn’t a moment in Game 2 that we didn’t think that maybe the Warriors could come back, and it would happen in the blink of an eye. Durant was as frustrated in the second half on Wednesday night as the rest of us, and this is what we’d previously so enjoyed from both him individually and Golden State separately: backs to the wall, they create basketball magic. Well, with Curry at full capacity they do, anyway.

Cary Edmondson/USA Today Sports

Curry and Durant are the answers to the riddle that D’Antoni has been trying to solve for decades now. James Harden is, as D’Antoni himself acknowledges, perhaps the greatest offensive weapon in NBA history. But that’s because Harden is a product of his time and knows how to leverage his advantages as a stout guard with a sweet stroke and, now, somebody next to him who can shoulder the burden.

Nevermind that that somebody is a generational point god, a man who turns topsy-turvy breakaways into works of art. Chris Paul had an arguably less impactful Game 2 than in Game 1, a paltry 16 points to 23, but his impact made itself apparent in ball movement.

Where there previously was standing around aimlessly from their teammates, perhaps considering the state of the New York Times editorial staff or the plight of plastic straws in a world going paper, there now was a feel for what’s real, true and right: a feel for the ball, their precious commodity, the object they’ve treated akin to a Guardiola-era Barcelona squad. They can’t beat you if you have the ball, and nobody orchestrates possession in the NBA quite like Chris Paul and James Harden do.

Let us consider Klay Thompson, the assassin apparently willing to give up somewhere in the gated community of $80 million in order to keep this team together and silent hero of Game 1, who quietly went 3-11 for 8 points in Game 2. That, uhh, is probably not happening again. Thompson singlehandedly tore apart the Oklahoma City Thunder’s championship aspirations two years ago, such to the point that Durant shook his head, closed Twitter and decided that he wanted a part of this.

You went looking for something to believe in, didn’t you? Believe in the Warriors as the be-all, end-all of basketball as it has to be in 2018, all its rules and limited spaces defined, and be pleasantly surprised if Houston can make this anything more than the Warriors special, a gentleman’s sweep. Guys, dolls, angels and demons alike can do no more.

*     *     *

[1] Not that you asked, but that’s 0.1 possessions behind ex-teammate Russell Westbrook.

[2] In Gordon’s defense, his max contract was once referred to as the worst in the NBA. He was the Sixth Man of the Year in 2017, and he has a decent shot at repeating this time around.

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