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Good Cop–Bad Cop: Can the Rockets Beat the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals?

An argument on behalf of the West’s no. 1 seed and pushback for the reigning champs

Two images of James Harden looking disappointed and happy Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Houston Rockets (fast and deadly) are playing the Golden State Warriors (equally fast and deadly and also the reigning NBA champions) in the Western Conference finals. Game 1 of the series is on Monday night. This is a Good Cop–Bad Cop argument for whether or not the Rockets have a chance to beat the Warriors. Good Cop is arguing that they do. Bad Cop is arguing that they don’t.

Good Cop: The Rockets can beat the Warriors. That’s a thing that can happen.

Bad Cop: The Rockets cannot beat the Warriors. That’s a thing that cannot happen.

Good Cop: How can you say that, though? They’re the no. 1 seed, man. That seems like a good place to start this conversation. Because since the Rockets are the no. 1 seed, that means … wait for it … that they won more games than the Warriors did. And since wins and losses are how we keep track of all of this, that means … wait for it … that the Rockets are better than the Warriors. That’s literally how that works.

Bad Cop: First of all, if you think a team winning more games in the regular season than a different team has anything to do with what happens in the playoffs, then I just don’t even know what to say to that. Draymond Green said it himself: The Warriors have become so accustomed to playing high-stakes basketball that the regular season now is just a boring thing to be suffered through. Second of all, have you ever seen The Social Network?

Good Cop: What?

Bad Cop: The Social Network. Have you seen it?

Good Cop: I feel like this is definitely going to end with you poking me in the eye somehow.

Bad Cop: In The Social Network, there’s a part when Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg is being questioned by a lawyer. They’re talking back and forth about how something he’s saying is in direct opposition to something someone else is saying. When he’s reminded that the other person was under oath when they gave their testimony, he very snidely responds, “Then I guess that would be the first time somebody’s lied under oath.” That’s me to you right now. You’re saying, “They’re the no. 1 seed, man.” And I’m very snidely responding, “Then I guess that’d be the first time a no. 1 seed lost in the playoffs.”

Good Cop: I knew it. A poke in the eye.

Bad Cop: A poke in the eye.

Good Cop: Are we going to just pretend like Steph didn’t miss a bunch of time at the end of the season and the beginning of the playoffs from injury? Does none of that matter here?


Good Cop: Come on.

Bad Cop: Sorry. It’s the truth.

Good Cop: You can’t just say, “Sorry. It’s the truth,” and think that’s good enough to make your statement actually a truth. That’s not how this works.

Bad Cop: It’s how arguing on the internet works. And besides, what does Steph Curry’s past injury matter anyway? He’s healthy now. All of Golden State’s main pieces are healthy and ready. And here’s a delicious thing that the equally delicious Zach Lowe pointed out in a recent article: The Warriors have played 27 playoff games since adding Kevin Durant to their roster. Do you know how many of those they’ve lost? Three of them. ONLY THREE TIMES IN 27 GAMES. But you think the Rockets are somehow going to beat them four times in, at most, seven games? Do you hear how dumb that sounds?

Good Cop: They have all the pieces to beat the Warriors. And you can go actual, individual players, or you can go big, broad stats. To wit: Did you know that the Rockets right now are leading the postseason in offensive efficiency?

Bad Cop: OK, but the Warriors led the regular season in offensive efficiency.

Good Cop: Then I guess it’s a good thing we’re not talking about the regular season, isn’t it? And weren’t you just talking about how the regular season doesn’t affect the postseason? Which is it? Does the regular season matter or not here?

Bad Cop: Let me ask you a question, and I’m going to be 100 percent serious with this and I want you to be, too.

Good Cop: Sure.

Bad Cop: Where are the Rockets honestly better than the Warriors? What position? What part of the game? Answer me that. James Harden isn’t better than Kevin Durant. Chris Paul isn’t better than Steph Curry. Eric Gordon isn’t better than Klay Thompson. Clint Capela isn’t better than Draymond Green. Mike D’Antoni isn’t better than Steve Kerr. On and on, all the way down the roster. And Golden State scores more points per game than the Rockets. And Golden State grabs more rebounds per game than the Rockets. And Golden State averages more assists per game than the Rockets. And the Rockets play a version of iso basketball that the Warriors are perfectly constructed to stop and squish out. And Golden State has better team colors than the Rockets. Where are the Rockets better?

Good Cop: Um … excuse me. There’s only one player in this series who’s in the MVP discussion, and let me tell you a little secret: He’s not wearing a Golden State jersey. And let me tell you another little secret: It’s James Harden. And let me tell you one more little secret: Golden State’s jerseys are stupid. Are they the Town or are they the Bay? What’s going on here? When are we getting their “The City” jersey? Or their “The Suburb” jersey? Or their “The Village” jersey?

Bad Cop: You honestly think that James Harden, lord of the fouls, is better than Steph Curry? Or that he’s better than Kevin Durant?

Good Cop: He’s about to have an MVP trophy in his house that implies exactly that, so yes.

Bad Cop: It’s almost impressive how you’re wrong about all of the things a person can be wrong about.

Good Cop: He spent the season PUTTING UP STAT LINES THAT NOBODY HAS EVER SEEN BEFORE! Don’t be so dense. You can’t just ignore what a player has done because you don’t like the way he’s doing it.

Bad Cop: Watch me.

Good Cop: Look, these are the things we know are going to happen, and same as I did with you, I want you to take these things 100 percent seriously.

We know that, since Golden State switches everything on defense, James Harden and Chris Paul are going to stretch and twist and bend each offensive possession until they end up forcing endless mismatches on the perimeter. And when that happens, we know that, since James Harden and Chris Paul are unguardable by all but the fiercest of defenders, they’re going to fucking eat. They will E-A-T. And it’s going to cause all manner of havoc. Because how many times do you think it’ll take for someone like Kevon Looney (who’ll be out there guarding the suddenly unstoppable spring-legged praying mantis Clint Capela) to get switched onto Chris Paul at the 3-point line before he’s just like, “You know what? Fuck this,” and then quit basketball altogether? Or how many times do you think it’ll take James Harden baiting a defender into fouling him before Draymond Green becomes so enraged that he cheap-shots himself in his own dick? Because you already know that D’Antoni has come up with a game plan that, above all else, makes sure that either one or both of Harden and Paul are on the court for 48 minutes of the game. So it’s going to just be switch and destroy, switch and destroy, switch and destroy.

And if the Rockets do that, you know that Harden and Paul are good enough that they can win at least two games by themselves. And you also know there’s going to be at least one game in the series when Eric Gordon gets it rolling and hits something like seven of 10 from 3 to steal a game, and probably also a night when Gerald Green summons the strengths of Houston’s six wards to play the game of his life, stealing another game from the Warriors. It’s going to happen. It just is. It makes too much sense not to. Honestly, the more I talk, the more convinced I am that this series won’t even go the full seven. It’s the Rockets in 6. Sorry. It’s the truth.

Bad Cop: Wrong, wrong, wrong. This is what you’re looking at, you dolt: You’re looking at a Warriors team that (1) has won two of the past three championships; and (2) has been all but unbeatable in the playoffs; and (3) has two former league MVPs in their starting lineup, one of whom was the league’s first ever unanimous MVP and is also the greatest shooter in the history of the NBA; and (4) has a guy who one time scored 37 points in a single quarter AS THEIR THIRD OPTION; and (5) has a Finals MVP coming off the bench just because it’s funny; and (6) has a coach who, in addition to the two titles he’s earned as head coach, won five titles during his playing career. Meanwhile, on the other side of the court, you have a team that (1) has a starting point guard who’s never played basketball this far into May before, and (2) has an MVP favorite whose most recent playoff run ended when he imploded against a team missing their best player; and (3) a coach who has never managed to get one of his teams to the Finals ever. That’s what you’re looking at.

Good Cop: OK, two things here: First, the whole “X isn’t going to beat Y because X hasn’t beaten Y” is the dumbest kind of argument. Nobody has ever beaten anybody until they’ve beaten them, you know what I’m saying? Second, what I see is a team that, for the first time in their multiyear championship run, looks like they’re ready to lose. They lost 24 games during the season. That’s more than they’ve lost in any one season since 2014 and as many as they lost in their last two seasons combined. Call it apathy, call it boredom, call it whatever. They’re not ready. They’re not prepared for what’s coming. They’ve never had to stare down a team like what the Rockets are. The Warriors are ready to be done. They’re ready to get knocked off. It happens with every great run. Bird’s Celtics eventually lost. Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers eventually lost. Duncan’s Spurs eventually lost. They all eventually lose. It’s time for the Warriors to lose.

And so you take that and balance it up against how obviously hungry for a title James Harden is, and how obviously hungry for a title Chris Paul is (DID YOU EVEN WATCH HIM SHOTGUN BLAST THE JAZZ OUT OF THE PLAYOFFS????), and how obviously lethal this Rockets offense is (THEY’RE THE ONLY TEAM TO HAVE SCORED AT LEAST 100 POINTS IN LITERALLY EVERY PLAYOFF GAME THIS YEAR), and really what we’re both looking at is the end of the Warriors’ reign.

Bad Cop: LOL. You can’t say the “X isn’t going to beat Y” argument is dumb and then immediately turn around and play the “hungry” card. Those two statements have the same kind of sentimental base.

Good Cop: Watch me.

Bad Cop: Here, look, listen. I’ve got it: You know how you know that the Rockets don’t have a real chance at beating the Warriors? Because there’s one perfect, easy to explain, easy to understand reason for how I know they can’t, and how we all should know they can’t.

Good Cop: How?

Bad Cop: It’s because this conversation—the “the Rockets can beat the Warriors” conversation—is happening. If the Rockets could beat the Warriors, we wouldn’t need to argue about it. It would just be a thing we knew. It’s why nobody’s sitting around like, “Man, I really think the Warriors have a chance against the Rockets.” We all know they do. Saying so would be like saying, “Man, I really think the sun might come up tomorrow.” No shit the sun’ll come up tomorrow. It’s the sun. That’s what it does. For all of human life, that’s what it’s done. And yet, here you are, talking about, “Hey, everyone. The sun’s not going to come up tomorrow because Eric Gordon could maybe get hot from 3 for a game.”

Good Cop: The Rockets can beat the Warriors. That’s a thing that can happen.

Bad Cop: The Rockets cannot beat the Warriors. That’s a thing that can’t happen.