Rockets-Warriors Is an Incomprehensible Mess of Confusing Storylines and Bad Basketball

Andre Iguodala and Chris Paul battle for a rebound.
Andre Iguodala and Chris Paul battle for a rebound in Oakland, California, on Wednesday.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In 1956, Harvard psychologist George A. Miller published a paper on the “limits on our capacity for processing information.” It’s pretty famous, as far as academic studies go, mainly due to Miller’s focus on what he describes as “the magical number seven.” He writes that “there is a finite span of immediate memory and that for a lot of different kinds of test materials this span is about seven items in length.” Think about reciting the digits of a phone number, for example, or the results of an NBA playoff series. The theory makes sense, just so long as that postseason series isn’t the current one between the Rockets and Warriors. I don’t know what the hell is going on there, with or without the help of peer-reviewed numerology.

To be fair, this probably speaks more to the series itself than to the human brain’s capacity for information. The Western Conference semifinals have been all over the map, and in just five games—we’re not even to the magical number seven yet!—it has provided a surplus of events and storylines. Remember Game 1? That was the “landing area” night, when everyone was flailing and falling all over the place. That game resulted in Houston leaking its “audits” in an attempt to highlight the officials’ supposed bias in favor of Golden State, an allegation that, like Steph Curry’s ability to play basketball, was totally forgotten by Game 3.

No moment in this series has had a chance to congeal. By the time the Warriors eked out a 104–99 win on Wednesday, the basketball world had shifted its focus to Kevin Durant, who appeared to have been bitten by an invisible Norwich terrier after he hit a jump shot in the third quarter.

This sparked a few dozen auxiliary storylines, and most followed the false thread laid by TNT color commentator Reggie Miller, who had speculated that Durant suffered a career-threatening Achilles tear during the play. An MRI on Thursday revealed the injury to be a calf strain, which is enough to knock Durant out of the series but far from the black swan event that prompted the New York Knicks fan base to briefly rearrange the team’s five-year plan. That’s why “Knicks,” the rumored apple of Durant’s eye during the upcoming free agency period, was trending on Twitter immediately after he hobbled to the locker room. Rockets-Warriors is so convoluted, it managed to ensnare in its web a team that got knocked out of playoff contention on March 4. After Game 1 we thought we’d have a referendum on refereeing, but by Game 5 all anyone could talk about was the damned Knicks.

The series has spun off its axis and the narrative has fractured into a million shards. It’s probably best if we all split up and spread out to collect whatever remains can be found.

Look, here’s Curry’s missed dunk.

James Harden’s blood-red cornea has to be here somewhere.

Watch your step in that meadow—it’s sprinkled with Chris Paul flops.

There was supposed to be a coherent blueprint for this series. The teams played each other in the Western Conference Finals less than a year ago. The cast of characters is essentially unchanged, and the biggest addition—Golden State’s DeMarcus Cousins—was lost to injury before the series began.* But rather than follow an established tack, the 2019 iteration has so far been a rudderless booze cruise. Judging by the sloppy and tired play, we need to quarantine it for mono.

Each game has been decided by 6 points or fewer, but we have yet to see an example of semi-competent execution during a final possession. The Warriors are a battle-tested dynasty, and yet this is how they wound up putting Game 5 beyond Houston’s reach.

Is this what happens when two teams are overly familiar with each other? That the games inevitably blur into a fog of turnovers and late whistles? That Steph Curry shoots 26 percent from three? That the only man capable of stringing together more than two decent games in a row is P.J. Tucker?

The center cannot hold. We’re only five games in, and the series has been reduced to a brittle carapace of contradicting storylines and unconvincing play. As the two most experienced and talented teams in the postseason, conventional wisdom suggests that whoever survives Rockets-Warriors will be in a great position to win the NBA championship. But this assumes the emergent squad will be a recognizable commodity by the end of this mess. I can’t remember what they looked like at the start. Can you?

Correction, May 10: This story originally said DeMarcus Cousins was lost to injury before the playoffs began. He was hurt in the first round.