There was no controversy to be found once the dust settled, only a tinge of embarrassment and a pair of bloodshot eyes.
The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets bickered and moaned about the officiating throughout Game 1 of their second-round series Sunday, laying the groundwork for one of the ugliest NBA media cycles in recent years.
Houston’s Chris Paul was ejected and later fined $35,000 for bumping an official, James Harden demanded a “fair chance,” Coach Mike D’Antoni asserted that the referees admitted that they blew four calls, and General Manager Daryl Morey expressed his dissatisfaction on social media. Then a Rockets report alleging favorable treatment toward the Warriors during the 2018 Western Conference finals leaked.
The defending champs might have been less aggressive in the aftermath of Game 1, but they were hardly without fault. Warriors Coach Steve Kerr pantomimed a flopping motion during a news conference — taking clear aim at the Rockets’ tendency for exaggeration — and stated that he could find plenty of calls to argue about in any game. When it became known that Scott Foster, one of the NBA’s most polarizing officials, was going to be working Game 2, the basketball world braced for another round of dual meltdowns.
Instead, the clouds mysteriously lifted. The Warriors and Rockets played Game 2 without histrionics or major confrontations, turning the focus back to basketball. Both Stephen Curry and Harden survived injury scares, and Golden State prevailed, 115-109, on Tuesday to take a 2-0 series lead. The lack of spectacle surely left rubbernecks disappointed, but both teams seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.
“Good refs,” D’Antoni said.
“I didn’t even notice the officiating,” Kerr added. “I think that’s the best compliment you can give them.”
While few NBA players engage as often or as effusively as Draymond Green, even the Warriors forward sounded chastened by the bad look the aftermath of Game 1 created for the league.
“I think both teams just realized what the hell was going on last two days,” Green said. “It’s kind of disheartening for a game that I love, since I was a child, to see that the talk over the last two days was nothing about basketball and everything about foul calls. Is that what this game is coming to?
“It’s kind of embarrassing for the game of basketball. What about beating your man? What about stopping your man? Nobody talked anything about schemes the last couple days. All about foul calls.”
The basketball story that emerged Tuesday was a familiar one: Kevin Durant came through in big moments, Houston shot itself in the foot with turnovers, and Golden State’s best lineup proved overwhelming again.
There were more than a few moments of exquisite play from the Warriors, who have opened games with the “Hamptons Five” lineup in this series. All five Warriors starters scored in double figures, and they outscored the Rockets by 12 points in their 24 minutes together.
The group lacked a weak link Tuesday. Durant continued a torrid streak, scoring a team-high 29 points and closing out the win with clutch jumpers and free throws. Curry dealt with a dislocated finger on his left hand and another round of foul trouble but still turned in a strong defensive effort and initiated quality ball movement. Klay Thompson hounded Harden and hit timely three-pointers, while Green and Andre Iguodala connected on high-low passing sequences that brought back memories of Golden State’s pure and effortless peaks from years past.
The Warriors survived a brief first-half scare, when Curry went to the locker room with the finger injury. X-rays were negative for a break, and he quickly returned to the action after taping the appendage. The two-time MVP said his finger was “all right,” and he is expected to be ready for Game 3 on Saturday.
Harden’s night was more complicated. After taking a blow to the face from Green while driving to the hoop, he remained down on the court, blood in his eyes, for an extended period of time. The reigning MVP eventually headed for the locker room and was sidelined for more than 10 minutes of action, but he returned to the game and scored a team-high 29 points.
“He fought through some stuff,” D’Antoni said. “The guy looked like he was not in great shape the first half. He got raked pretty good in the eyes. I didn’t have a doubt he was coming back unless it was something catastrophic. Under the circumstances, I thought he played great.”
Harden’s eyes were still visibly red during his postgame news conference, and he winced while shielding them from the lights.
“I can barely see,” Harden said, noting that Houston’s medical staff had administered “a couple drops” to treat the injury. “It’s pretty blurry right now. Hopefully it gets better day by day. Can’t see nothing.”
Houston sounded fighting mad after Game 1 but appeared resigned after Game 2. Paul scored 18 points, and all five Rockets starters finished in double figures, but they still came up short despite strong outside shooting and a late push.
“No moral victories over here,” Paul said flatly. “[The series is] 0-2, you know what I mean? [Cutting the lead] doesn’t say nothing. We lost.”
There are, however, at least two silver linings: Harden will have three consecutive off days to recover, and Houston is headed home. The Rockets beat the Warriors twice in last year’s Western Conference finals at Toyota Center, and they were 3-0 against the Utah Jazz at home during the first round.
Whether Tuesday represents a turning point in the teams’ treatment of the officials or merely a brief respite will depend on the desperate Rockets, who suddenly face a crossroads. A Game 3 win would restore hope and competitive drama, while a loss would leave them open to charges that their whining overshadowed and derailed a potentially classic rematch.