The Houston Rockets defeated the visiting Golden State Warriors at the Toyota Center in a hypothetical preview of an almost preordained Western Conference Finals. Daryl Morey, certainly the only General Manager in the league currently producing a musical, took to Twitter to salute his team, no doubt experiencing the intoxicating pride of a long-suffering parent finally seeing all the money they sunk into sending their children to Art School paying off in a big way. The bad-ish blood between these teams has always deserved a true rivalry to justify it and now we’ve got one and it’s already squalid and unwholesome and perfect. In the age of subtweeting, cryptic Instagram posts, and company men sleepily towing the party line, it was refreshing when Morey straight up said that beating the Warriors “was the only thing we think about.” Morey, a devoted fan of Les Misérables, plainly has more than a little bit of the haunted and obsessed Inspector Javert hardwired into him. Hell yeah, Daryl. Way to be a human being, dude! But also, that’s the sort of candor that will likely torment your dreams if the likely outcome of that bout comes to pass.
If this massively talented, perhaps historically so, Rockets team were to fall in the playoffs, and specifically if they were to fall to Golden State, it would be more than something as crass and ephemeral as a mere playoff loss. Imagine being given a participation trophy with a grenade stuffed inside it. Or learning you aren’t even Sisyphus, you’re just the boulder he pushes around. The Warriors aren’t content with beating you. They’ll unmake you. Dishonor you. Drag you down to the Sunken Place and force you to limp your way back into the light.
This Rockets team isn’t a fun quasi-contender just happy to be there like in recent years past. The group Morey has assembled feel special. If the Warriors didn’t exist they’d be favorites to both reach the Finals and probably win the whole thing. The wrinkle in that scenario is that obviously the Warriors do exist. And by existing, they continue to keep Daryl Morey right where he is, oscillating between a Prophet who has changed the way we think about the game, and a reactionary numbers geek whose “vision” hasn’t yet to prove anything.
These Rockets were intended to match up with the Warriors on the court, and they obviously do, but there’s also a synchronicity to these teams, that is to say, they feel bonded by meaningful coincidences, coincidences that double as old-world debts of honor meant to be collected. The bad blood, the history. In retrospect, it may not have been the savviest move James Harden ever made when he dismissed Golden State years ago, saying, “They ain’t even that good.” Since then the Warriors have breezily derailed the Rockets in the postseason twice, breaking a sweat once maybe, but perhaps more unforgivably, Harden lost a slightly closer battle with Stephen Curry for the 2014-15 MVP award. The destruction has been decidedly one-sided.
And never forget Chris Paul was once something of a mentor to the scrawny point-guard toiling away on a what was then, very bad Golden State team. That friendly rivalry motivated Curry, and that motivation never seemed to wane, even when the rivalry became markedly less friendly. Chris Paul spent his final three seasons in Los Angeles playing alongside a Clippers squad that were habitually brutalized by Curry and the suddenly and unfairly fully formed and realized Warriors. Chris Paul, a future Hall of Famer and the near undisputed best point guard of his generation, a tightly coiled Napoleon already burdened by the stigma of never having advanced to the Conference Finals, watched as his upstart pupil won a championship, and an MVP award, and vaulted over him in the NBA’s Pantheon. One might argue, it’s all a game. It’s all in good fun. Except it’s not a game and it’s not all in good fun. It’s your livelihood, your honor, your pride. The sort of thing that forces the light from your eyes.
Even Mike D’Antoni has some reasons to lust for retribution. He was widely and at least somewhat accurately described as the progenitor of Golden State’s smallball revolution (nobody ever mentions Don Nelson!), gained a cult-status from basketball diehards but was generally thought of as something of a one-dimensional gimmick coach whose style of play could never work deep in the playoffs. To defeat the team that most successfully “stole” his blueprint would be what poets might call “regular justice.” There’s also the matter of his old GM Steve Kerr swapping Shawn Marion for a 36-year-old Shaq. D’Antoni definitely deserves at least a bit of revenge for that.
Morey, the boy genius, took a dive into advanced stats and masterfully assembled a team fueled by existential grudges and material scores to settle with the Golden State Warriors. This is the extra gear they need to get over the hump. The Warriors have more raw talent, but they’re also distracted by non-stop success and probably ennui or something. The Rockets have the emotional edge. The loathing is primal. People often remark on the superficial similarities between these teams (pace, offensive efficiency, three-pointers) but the eyes balk at that notion. The Rockets are not a funhouse mirror version of the Warriors, but a handpicked Suicide Squad with no shortage of hatchets to bury. It’s their life’s work. They want to expose the Warriors. They want to force us to admit the Emperor has no clothes. This lends a certain grim splendor to the season. The Rockets are ravenous. Their time is now. They have shown a willingness to embrace the Lord of Chaos, as seen during Operation Secret Tunnel in which they came this close to abducting Austin Rivers.
This is a special team built for one last big score, or perhaps one score before the last big score. A Hall of Fame backcourt taking turns doling out irreparable damage. The next great Rockets big man. The reigning round-faced Sixth Man of the Year. Hoary bitter vets who will probably do something amazing in a narrow Game 3 win. Defensive minded wings. Gerald Green, the requisite hometown hero with an amputated finger. And there’s also Ryan Anderson. A belligerent team that wouldn’t mind outlasting whichever Eastern team makes it out, but would much prefer destroying Golden State in the Western Conference Finals, because that’s the real championship, the real goal, the real prize.
So, Daryl Morey is for the moment, sitting pretty, though as ever, precariously so. Through his well-documented wheeling and dealing and long-con patience, he’s on the cusp of something. Payback against the ruling class (not the real ruling class, Morey was of course a Mitt Romney supporter). Disproving inevitability. Cosmic justice for the little guy, as long as the little guy loathes mid-range shots. The Rockets really do feel as close to perfect as a Moreyball team has ever been and possibly can ever be. And yet it’s still all prologue. Nothing’s been accomplished yet. And now, with a team that looks this talented and cohesive, should minds and shots break at critical moments, it’ll be that much harder to bear when Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant playfully skip past them to yet another humdrum Finals engagement (or as the Warriors call it, Thursday). These Rockets desire to prove they aren’t another team to be summarily dispatched. And it seems that they aren’t. They will carry with them the judgment of history and NBA Twitter. Daryl Morey will be judged. Chris Paul will be judged. James Harden will be judged. Mike D’Antoni will be judged. Zhou Qi will probably not be judged, but you never know. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you are obsessed with beating the Warriors, as long as you beat the Warriors. It’s not a Presidential Election in which it behooves you to articulate a vision for the future. All you have to do is score more points than the other team. The Rockets, believe it or not, can do that.
Of course, everything changes if Steph Curry and Kevin Durant retire from the NBA to pursue careers in Minor League baseball. In a scenario such as that it becomes almost inevitable the Rockets win it all. They’d probably even win twice in a row.