The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets could hardly have found a stranger time than Thursday to stage a rematch of the Western Conference final.
The Rockets began this season suffering from a massive almost-won-a-championship hangover. Their woeful start included injuries, suspensions, defensive discombobulation, ice-cold shooting, and complete flops from basically all the new pieces they added in the offseason. The Warriors began it by setting the rest of the league ablaze, looking revitalized as they toppled scoring records.
But by the time their paths crossed, things seemed to be changing for both clubs. The Rockets were in the process of turning things around and had just cut bait on their ill-fated Carmelo Anthony experiment. Meanwhile, the luster of the Warriors' joyous start had worn off in the wake of Steph Curry's adductor injury and, more significantly, a pride-wounding blowup between Kevin Durant and Draymond Green that threatens to compromise the foundation of a dynasty.
So, these two mercurial and wildly talented teams played a game, and it was ... not great.
The basketball was sloppy, stagnant, iso-heavy, and often listless. A paucity of cuts and productive passes made points hard to come by. The home crowd in Houston was shockingly dead. And then, slowly but surely, the Rockets got their act together and blew the lid off.
The Warriors remained stuck in the mud, either unable or unwilling to combat the Rockets' endless defensive switches with anything but one-on-one play. They could not work their way to open 3-point looks (they finished the game just 4-of-18 from deep), and didn't compensate by getting to the rim. The Rockets smoked them 107-86.
For those who believe Golden State is truly falling apart, and those convinced that Carmelo Anthony was holding the Rockets back, the game could not have been more affirming. The tactical differences were evident - Houston's switch-everything defense is much more seamless without Anthony there to get singled out, and the Warriors have never looked remotely like themselves without Curry on the floor - but, more than anything, the interpersonal element of the sport was just begging for consideration.
"We're banged up physically and banged up spiritually," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "There's no getting around that."
Durant not only declined to speak on the status of his and Green's relationship after the game, but he demanded that no questions about it be asked.
It feels like there's an element of wishful thinking in the breathless speculation that's surrounded this Golden State mess. Plenty of people would be happy enough to see the team crumble so they can have their league back, so the element of suspense can return, so there can be balance in the force. Those people would gladly line up to toss dirt on the Warriors' casket.
But this isn't just about schadenfreude. Like Draymond Green, fans are not robots. We process the game on an emotional level. So it's heartening when a team that seems to enjoy playing together overcomes a more talented team that does not. It's the same reason we overhype every temporary boost a team gets after trading a difficult player or firing an irascible coach. Hey, see how happy and engaged Karl-Anthony Towns looks? Have you heard the Wolves are fun again? We gravitate toward teams that play with verve and cohesion. That's been a big part of the Warriors' ethos - until recently, anyway.
Maybe we overstate the impact of that human element, and read too much into abstractions like body language and "vibe." Since we're not in players' heads, what can we do but speculate? Didn't the Warriors look kind of disconnected under the cloud of Durant's sullenness last night? Didn't the Rockets look bouncy and jovial, freed from the "big shadow" 'Melo reportedly cast over the team?
One of the subtle thrills of watching sports is finding confirmation of the things we pretend to already know. That's what made Thursday's game so fascinating, even though the janky basketball on display bore little resemblance to the sky-high level of the conference final a half-year ago: It was a resounding win for confirmation bias.
Then again, James Harden hit some crazy step-backs, and Gary Clark and James Ennis suddenly couldn’t miss from the corners, and Eric Gordon finally turned in a strong performance, and Green - who went scoreless with five turnovers - was apparently playing through a foot injury, so who really knows what to read into the outcome. Of course the team that wins by a huge margin looks more joyful than the one that loses. And it wasn't all doom and gloom for the Warriors; they seemed pretty relaxed and unperturbed on the bench during garbage time. Durant and Green even shared a moment of on-court camaraderie.
But this sport, like life, is all about the stories we tell. We take what we can see with the naked eye, and then try to fill in the blanks. Right now, the story about the Warriors is that they're too fractured to put forth an adequate effort on the court, and the most pressing question in the NBA is whether those fissures will prevent the most talented team in league history from winning a third straight title. Green insists those schisms won't stop Golden State. But if you're Kevin Durant, good luck convincing reporters not to ask you about it. Until we have an answer to that question, we'll be trying to fill in the blanks.