The Warriors-Rockets Playoff Series Represents Everything Wrong With Today’s NBA
A stacked team going through the motions. Foul-seeking guards whining about every “missed” call. The NBA Playoffs matchup between the Warriors and Rockets is a total nightmare.
Swedish directing legend Ingmar Bergman’s 1972 film, Cries and Whispers, follows two sisters, Karin and Maria, who, along with a nurse named Anna, are caring for their older sister, Agnes, as she slowly and painfully dies of cancer. Karin is brittle and closed off; Maria is flighty and manipulative; Anna is kind but reduced by her class; and Agnes is a paragon of suffering. In this vicious rendering, they and their dying sister are not a comfort so much as they are a trap—engineered to torment each other and draw out their worst selves whilst held hostage in a massive, red-roomed 18th-century mansion. To watch Cries and Whispers is to abandon the idea of “entertainment” altogether; to sit in front of a screen and bear witness to the horrors we can create sans outright violence.
The second-round playoff series the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors are currently playing is the Cries and Whispers of the NBA—a heap of unbelievably bad vibes radiating out of the television and poisoning its audience with despair. Its two teams, wretched for wildly divergent reasons, are fueled and poisoned by loathing for the other and for themselves. They’re duking it out with a brand of basketball that makes you wonder if modernity was a mistake—heaving up threes at absurd clips, driving at the rim constantly, jumping into contact and hoping the refs sort everything out. Moments of joy feel forced, hideous, grotesque, while the miasma of misery feels like the truth. It is today’s NBA laid bare, burnt and bleeding.
The Golden State Warriors are the suffering sisters. Kevin Durant, who came to the team in free agency two years ago and has won two straight Finals MVPs, is openly disappointed with the amount of happiness he’s wrung from the ultimate victory he’s been chasing all his life. Sources have him poised to leave the team at his soonest convenience, even though team ownership would cut off their fingertips to have him stay and help open the Chase Center, the hideous San Francisco monstrosity of an arena (Iit’s going to have courtside suites with literal butler service) that the Warriors will be moving to next year.
This open secret has sowed dissent in the locker room, creating an open rift between Durant and Draymond Green, and left the fan base grumbling about KD. Durant, for his part, either cares a lot or doesn’t care at all about this, he hasn’t quite decided. He has attached himself to a Svengali-like figure, Rich Kleiman, and begun doing lengthy interviews on podcasts where he talks about striving to exist outside of basketball. All he seems to know is that he’s not feeling the way he was supposed to when he left Oklahoma City, and he is looking for the solution to that. He’s still playing well—magnificently, even—but he’s doing it out of a sense of inevitability, because it’s what he’s supposed to do.
On the other side, the Maria to Durant’s Karin, is Steph Curry. Curry is also entertaining some outside projects, like producing a very un-Bergman-like film about how the power of prayer saved a boy from freezing to death, but he’s still out there taking long shots for the crowd, dancing, and just being joyous. However, even a passive observer may feel like something is…off. Watch him force superstar Rockets guard James Harden out of bounds in Game 1…and then proceed to gloatingly point at the boundary line, celebrating victory through technicality. This is monstrously unsporting. And look: I like a gloat, a hand to the ear, but…for an out of bounds? Celebrating the enforcement of the rules instead of some act of extraordinary athleticism or skill? What is even happening, man? Where is your head if you think this is cool?
Klay Thompson has been mostly pedestrian. Draymond Green has been weirdly excellent, occasionally looking like the only dude on the team who really wants a title instead of something else we can’t quite put our finger on—and probably won’t until dudes start writing tell-alls.
If Durant stayed, The Warriors would probably just keep winning titles for the next few years by virtue of being overwhelmingly talented. Shit, they will probably win this year. But they’re such a victory-or-bust enterprise, the most talented roster in the history of the league, that they’ve nearly stopped competing with opponents and begun competing purely for style points. Anything less than total victory is seen as a defeat by observers, and, increasingly, themselves. It’s a losing game and it needs to end for the sake of everyone’s sanity. Happiness cannot be found here—only disappointment.
Against the Clippers, a massively inferior but spirited squad who they managed to drop two games to, the Warriors were tired and stressed and old, and watching them get beat or play way too close was pretty damn fun.
But in this rematch with the Rockets, they have found their blaring, hideous red room. After a Game 1 loss that hinged on some debatable referee calls, the Rockets’ GM, Daryl Morey, almost certainly leaked a report his office put together last year: a referee audit determining—with the use of highly questionable methodology—that referee malfeasance cost them the Western Conference Finals in 2018. This is a prime loser move, thirsty and miserable, the only thing you could do to make yourself unlikable against an unbeatable team that is grinding through the motions, eye-rolling themselves to the trophy.
On one end, a superteam that can’t be beat by anyone but themselves; on the other, a cynical group of foul-seeking, three-jacking pirates, openly complaining that their foul-seeking isn’t being taken seriously enough. It’s a perfect modern NBA nightmare: a funhouse-mirror mutation of the Pistons-Pacers hellslogs from the mid-aughts, the bitterness of way-too-excellent defense replaced by the cloying sweetness of too-many-three-pointers offense.
Hopefully it’s the last one—for Kevin Durant’s sake.