Rockets vs Warriors Round 2: Best game of the season?

Last Thursday, the defending champions Golden State Warriors and their West Coast rivals Houston Rockets went at it in the best game of the 2018-2019 season.

But was it really? Was it better than the Suns-Wizards triple overtime thriller? Or any of the Raptors-Celtics Battle for the East slugfests?

Many signs say that it was. Basketball Twitter exhibited the common symptoms during the game: superlatives in all caps; excessive use of exclamation points; about four to five variations of the “basketball is very good” or “I love basketball” commentary. Also busy, presumably, were Whatsapp group chats and Viber threads—those noisy, unfiltered circles of trust where similar traces of incoherent rambling and a caps locked-mix of hot and bad takes (mostly bad) usually flare up in games like this one.

The two teams already teased the possibility of a best-game scenario even before tip-off, thanks to the exciting yet conflicting 2018 Western Conference Finals that the Warriors won* (*friendly reminder that Chris Paul didn’t play in Game 7). That series guaranteed deep history in all future Rockets-Warriors encounters. They became two bitter exes trying to one up the other in a quest to win the break-up.

First meeting, the Rockets won. Convincingly. It wasn’t the best game of the season. But at least it added more thirst for revenge to the already toxic rivalry.

Looking back at that first duel, which happened in November 2018, it feels like it happened in November in an alternate universe.

Check out the starting fives of the respective squads from that game:

James Harden
PJ Tucker
James Ennis III
Clint Capela

Kevin Durant
Draymond Green
Klay Thompson
Damian Jones
Andre Iguodala

Roster shakeup aside, internal drama from both ends also lurked in the shadows in that November matchup. The Warriors were dealing with the Durant-Green LQ while the Rockets were mourning the death of the Carmelo Anthony Will Fit In movement. (Not-so-fun fact: On November 16, 2017, Melo was the second-highest scorer for the Oklahoma City Thunder in a game vs the Chicago Bulls. He’s unemployed exactly a year later. Life is hard.)

But Thursday’s rematch, despite all the pre-conditioned hype, also had signs saying it wasn’t going to be the best game of the season. The Rockets were missing Paul and spare flamethrower Eric Gordon; the Warriors had Steph back.

For comparison, check out the starting rosters:

Austin Rivers
Danuel House Jr.

Kevon Looney
Steph Curry

Advantage was obviously with the Warriors. By halftime, true enough, they were up by 17. They flipped the switch, the score suggested. They figured it out.

Until they didn’t. Until Harden woke up (he shot a “pathetic” 3 of 9 from three in the first half) and self-corrected.

For the past month, Harden’s numbers have gone rogue. To get an idea of just beautifully unhinged he’s been, Google “James Harden wrath.” Or try looking directly at the sun at noon—that blinding, burning sensation in your eyes is but a mild representation of how hot the reigning MVP has been the past 10-plus games.

Harden painstakingly chipped away at Golden State’s lead. He took threes as if he was so open even when he’s so not. He found Capela. He even found Rivers (!!!). The Warriors, on the other hand, lost themselves. Again. They relaxed on defense. Klay ad-libbed and took defenders off the dribble. KD and Steph tried to outgun each other, which on a good day, would have been a problem for the opposing team.

With about a minute left in the fourth quarter and the Warriors up six, KD and Steph took turns in attempting to end the Rockets. Both tried long bombs early in the shot clock. Both misfired, leaving the slightest bit of opening for the Rockets to claw back.

That’s all Harden needed. Give him a split-second of daylight, a little peek into the basket, and like a reverse Bird Box, you’re the one who’s dead.

Houston got five more minutes of basketball and instantly grabbed the lead for the first time since the first quarter. Golden State retaliated. Around two and a half minutes left, Curry sank a corner three-pointer for a four-point separation. Should’ve been game over. Then Houston retaliated.

Harden drained a corner three of his own. Next time down, he drew two defenders, swung the ball to an open Rivers, who delivered on the catch and shoot. At that point, game officials should’ve turned off the clock. Just let both teams shoot until an arm falls off.

Golden State held a two-point lead with 20 seconds left. And not without controversy, as best games require. The flimsy cushion was the result of a blown call by the referees. Durant lost the ball at the baseline, paid a quick visit to the courtside seats, checked how warm the seats were, then somehow managed to “save” the ball inbounds. The illegal possession ended up in Curry’s hands. One head fake, and Curry turned shit to gold.

Twenty seconds was a long time though. The Rockets got the ball to Harden and alarm bells rang. Every spot between the rim and halfcourt is an unlocked shooting spot for the reigning MVP. Over Thompson and Green, Harden punched in the game-winner. The Rockets were saved. The refs were safe. The rivalry was alive. The best game of the season was secured.

It was the best kind, where key pieces were missing but somehow it still worked. At times it got ugly. All the time it was entertaining (44 minutes of good/bad Austin Rivers is crazy addictive).

What made it the best game of the season was less about Harden’s game-winner and more of the back and forth, the cancelling out, the figuring out. Warriors vs Rockets will always be an exhausting tug-of-war of who solved basketball. Thank the basketball gods that we’ll have more of these in the coming months.

Photos from Getty and AP