Golden State Warriors center Kevon Looney (5) fouls Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul (3) as both go after a loose basketball during second quarter of Game 3 of the 2019 NBA West Conference Semifinal Playoffs on May 4, 2019 at Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. (Chris Victorio | Special to S.F. Examiner)

Golden State Warriors center Kevon Looney (5) fouls Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul (3) as both go after a loose basketball during second quarter of Game 3 of the 2019 NBA West Conference Semifinal Playoffs on May 4, 2019 at Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. (Chris Victorio | Special to S.F. Examiner)

Kolsky: In Warriors-Rockets, we see artistry versus utility

Golden State and Houston represents two divergent basketball philosophies

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a series. Not just a series, but a compelling story, an epic tale of conflict between diametrically opposed forces.

This second-round battle between the Warriors and Rockets has been in the making since last year’s Western Conference Finals, and it is paying dividends in many ways. It may not be the most beautiful basketball — it is sometimes downright nauseating — but we’ve had four games that have largely remained in question down to the final minute.

In the eyes of Warriors fans, a couple of defensive rebounds and a couple fewer misses on open jumpers could have made this a sweep in Golden State’s favor. Rockets supporters might feel the same way after two close losses in Oakland.

This is what we came for: A handful of the best players in the league competing their butts off and making magic happen. In the Hebrew parlance of the recently observed Passover holiday: dayenu — that would have been sufficient. But, at the very core of this showdown, you have a philosophical difference on how to approach the game — two different ways to ruin basketball, if you will.

The misconception with Houston is that they’re somehow a furtherance of a Golden State-inspired 3-point revolution. In fact, they’re closer to a Moneyball-style organization, committed to the math.

The Rockets represent a cold utilitarianism. They do whatever they have calculated to be the most efficient way to get the job done. They constantly put the ball in the hands of James Harden because he is their best player; he persists in foul-hunting and histrionics because it’s effective.

The Warriors are, by contrast, artistic. Those who watch this team regularly know they are at their best when they play with Steve Kerr’s oft-referenced “rhythm and flow.”

Concerns about Kevin Durant’s relative aggressiveness be damned, the Warriors can thrive regardless of his shot count. Fret about Steph Curry or Klay Thompson’s 3-point percentage if you like, but when they compete defensively and the ball moves on offense, the Warriors almost invariably triumph.

It’s mass production versus artisanality. Cold steel versus hot-blooded humanity.

It need not be a value judgment, though I imagine my personal preference is clear. When a winner emerges, it won’t be a referendum on the future of the league — quite frankly, none of this meta mumbo jumbo means much if you don’t have superstars to build it around.

The contrasting philosophies, though, make for further fascination.

Many of the postgame comments on Monday were about specifics, but both squads said things that laid their essence bare.

“The only chance we have is to get into their bodies and make every shot that they take contested,” was one way James Harden expressed his side’s desire to bludgeon basketball into submission. “Every possession is a fight.”

A proverbial rock fight, if Houston has its way. The Rockets have made no secret of their desire to slow the game down, to use their physicality.

“Very physical… I just like our intensity,” said Eric Gordon. “For us, it’s all about being physical.”

“We definitely won the 50/50 game today — all the loose balls, all the offensive rebounds, we got those,” Austin Rivers said. “Both teams have plenty of scoring, both teams have plenty of talent, so I think the winner of this series is going to be the team that just outworks [the other].”

This is a thing the Warriors can combat. To some extent, they have to meet force with force.

“I think there’s just a mindset … We’re going into a fight thinking it’s a fair fight, and it’s not,” Draymond Green said on Monday. “They’re doing whatever it takes to win, and we’re just kinda rolling in like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll box,’ and they’re slamming us.”

He’s right, generally speaking, but Golden State is already at a disadvantage if they allow the games to be contested on the battlefield of physicality.

Golden State has the isolation firepower to win on the Rockets terms. If KD, Curry, Klay or any combination thereof get hot, and they do meet the physical challenge, Houston’s math can collapse. To assure supremacy, though, the Warriors have to make this battle more aesthetic than physical.

“I thought we played hard enough, but force has to be accompanied by poise,” Kerr said. “It felt like we were in a rush offensively all night. We’re at our best when we have a bunch of playmakers out there and the ball is moving and we’re attacking but with the idea that we’re going to get great shots. I didn’t think we got great shots for much of the night, I thought we were just in a rush to create space.”

Why are Steph and Klay struggling from long-range? “When you’re not poised, and you’re taking quick shots, and you’re not searching for great shots, you’re not gonna shoot the ball as well,” Kerr answered.

It’s easy to see that the Warriors want to run and the Rockets want to walk. What Kerr is pointing out is that more than a superficial tug of war over speed, it’s about Golden State feeling their flow and making the game beautiful.

Of course the Rockets want to make this about physicality — it’s a battle they can fight. Naturally, they want to slow things down and ugly it up. If this becomes a beauty contest, that’s a contest they can’t win.

It should make sense, then, that when asked about matching the physicality, Kerr again pointed to poise: “They’ve got a lot of middle linebackers on that team … we look more like volleyball players — long and lean … Houston’s very physical, they’re very good, but I’ll go back to it again — we know what we have to do.”

What they have to do is rise above the muck and the mire, and deny the Rockets their preferred field of battle. When Houston turns to equations, they turn to brush strokes.

The Warriors must embrace their artistry in the face of soulless science.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, 5a-6a every weekday morning. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.


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