I Wish Both Teams Could Lose the Warriors-Rockets Series

Curry, kneeling, points at the sideline as Harden looks past him with a stoic expression.
Warriors guard Stephen Curry, standing in front of Rockets guard James Harden, gestures to indicate that the Rockets’ Eric Gordon (not pictured) stepped out of bounds during the fourth quarter of their Sunday playoff game in Oakland, California.
Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports/Reuters

On Sunday, the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets took part in what was ostensibly an NBA playoff game—the first of their Western Conference semifinals series—in Oakland, California. More than a matchup of professional basketball clubs, though, the Warriors’ 104–100 victory was a prelude to a postgame gripe session that looks set to continue into Tuesday night’s Game 2 and beyond.

The bitching and moaning started on the court, crescendoing after this crucial play, in which the Rockets felt James Harden got fouled by the Warriors’ Draymond Green:

Defenders are prohibited from moving into the “landing area” of a player taking a shot. The NBA’s VP of refereeing would later admit that, earlier in the game, the Warriors’ Klay Thompson should’ve been whistled for undercutting Harden’s ability to land. But on this play, it looked like Harden kicked his feet forward unnaturally in an effort to draw contact; ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt has compiled video evidence demonstrating that Harden tends to make this kicking motion when there’s a defender in front of him but not when he’s wide open and shooting normally. While the NBA’s rule book doesn’t set precise dimensions for what constitutes a landing area, the league said in a postgame statement that referees had been correct not to call a foul given that Harden had only drawn contact by extending his legs.

As you can see, Harden’s teammate Chris Paul was so upset by the sequence beginning with Harden’s shot that he got ejected and has since been fined $35,000 for “recklessly making contact with a game official.” After the game, Harden—who shoots far more free throws than anyone in the league—complained that he wasn’t being given a “fair chance” by referees. And then it emerged that the Rockets had been so mad about the officiating in their Western Conference Finals loss to the Warriors last year that they’d prepared an entire report about it, one that argued that refereeing bias—rather than the 27 straight 3-point attempts they missed during Game 7—was responsible for their defeat. Which is all very tedious, coming from a team whose offensive strategy is largely predicated on exploiting the gray area between drawing fouls and flopping. Live by the sword, die by the sword, Daryl Morey!

Does this mean we should all root for the Warriors instead? Hardly! Golden State is also insistent, and has been for years, that NBA referees are biased against them. The paranoia manifests itself not just in comments to the press but in near-constant in-game complaining: This season Green and teammate Kevin Durant tied for the league lead in technical fouls with 16, while now-injured Warrior DeMarcus Cousins got 7 despite only playing in 30 games. (Efficient!) Last season, Green and Durant were second and third on the same list, and they’ve already gotten three techs each in this year’s playoffs. Durant has also recently complained that the media isn’t fair to him, while Green was suspended by the Warriors earlier in the season after reportedly calling Durant a “bitch” in a locker-room tirade. It’s truly a tangled web of techs and suspensions that the Warriors weave—an atmosphere of bickering made all the more bizarre by the fact that they are a team of All-Stars who win almost all their games. The hedonic treadmill is real.

So, we have two of the league’s most popular and heavily promoted teams, each believing in a theory of persecution that’s supported by neither common sense nor statistical evidence, each more than willing to complain to anyone at any time about this and other subjects. The once-lovable favorites are drowning in a bitter marinade of whining and infighting, while the underdogs have snatched unlikability from the jaws of, uh, rootableness. Also, the teams’ game Tuesday night will be refereed by an official who was voted worst in the league in an anonymous poll of NBA players, and who both Harden and Paul have criticized publicly as recently as February. I’ll be pulling for the asteroid!