Reaching the NBA Finals is no easy feat, with teams needing to go through three rounds in the playoffs just to come close to hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy.
And because each round is a best-of-seven series – at least since 2003 – the cream usually rises to the top, meaning there are less chances of fluky runs like in the NFL or March Madness.
This season’s Boston Celtics are now two games away from reaching the Finals and becoming one of the most unlikely teams to do so. Despite not having All-Stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving due to injuries, the Celtics have built up a 2-0 lead on LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
That got us thinking of the most improbable teams to ever make the Finals.
1975-76 Phoenix Suns
The franchise had only reached the playoffs once before and had never won a series, while their record this season was an average 42-40.
They had Alvin Adams, who was an All-Star and Rookie of the Year, but few could have imagined them booking a Finals spot, where they fell to the Boston Celtics.
1977-78 Seattle SuperSonics
Seattle started this season 5-17, which led to a head coaching change.
They got their act together to finish 47-35, but more impressively, they took down the defending champion Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals before losing to the Washington Bullets in seven.
1998-99 New York Knicks
In a lockout-shortened season, the Knicks went just 27-23 to reach the playoffs as an eight seed.
They lost star Patrick Ewing to an Achilles injury in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, but battled to advance to the Finals, where the San Antonio Spurs were their ultimate downfall.
2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers
This team had LeBron James, so in hindsight, it’s not that surprising.
At the time though, James was only 22 and had a fairly weak roster around him. Yet he still carried the Cavaliers past the favoured Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals before being swept by the Spurs in the Finals.
2010-2011 Dallas Mavericks
The only team on this list to win the showpiece, Dallas had a Cinderella season and playoff run, which culminated in Dirk Nowitzki and the franchise finally capturing an elusive title by thwarting the Big Three of the Miami Heat.
After being left for dead following their series-opening loss to the Golden State Warriors on their home floor, the Houston Rockets responded by striking back in Game 2 to even the Western Conference Finals.
The Warriors remain in an enviable position having already stolen home-court as the series now shifts to Oakland, but the 127-105 victory by the Rockets was a promising first step to making this a competitive match-up.
Here are takeaways from Game 2.
More of the same, just done better
Houston’s offence was much more efficient – obviously, they scored 127 points – but it wasn’t because they changed up their approach and decided to abandon isolation basketball.
While they were undoubtedly more fluid and used crisp ball movement to catch the Warriors’ defence leaning on several possessions, attacking one-on-one remained their bread and butter.
Ha, Houston had 33 logged plays that were isolation or passes out of isolation for shots or turnovers in Game 2. That’s the exact same amount as Game 1. they scored slightly less efficiently but still great at 1.152 points per possession.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 17, 2018
Paul scored 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting, but it was Gordon who truly made the difference as he dropped 27 on 8-of-15 from the field, including 6-of-9 from deep.
P.J. Tucker also stepped up and took advantage of his spot-up chances, hitting 8-of-9 overall and 5-of-6 from long range for 22 points.
The Rockets went from 9 points on 18 spot-up possessions in Game 1 to 39 points (!) on 20 possessions in Game 2.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 17, 2018
Aesthetically, the offence looked more spread out and predicated on passing rather than dribbling, but the numbers aren’t reflective of that. Houston’s assist percentage was slightly higher than Game 1 – 46.2 per cent to 51.1 – but they only made two more total passes – 226 to 228.
If anything, the Rockets should be encouraged that they didn’t have to change up what worked for them all season and do something entirely different. They won playing their style and that should give them confidence heading into Game 3.
Death Lineup doesn’t come alive
Warriors coach Steve Kerr started his ‘Death Lineup’ for the fourth straight game and used it more than he has at any point in the playoffs, keeping them on the floor 21.3 minutes.
Heading into Game 2, that lineup had outscored teams by 56 points in 71 minutes while boasting an offensive rating of 126.4 points and a defensive mark of 92.0 for a net rating of 34.4.
In Game 2, however, the Hamptons Five finished with a net rating of minus-35.9 and were outscored by 18 points.
Considering how dominant that lineup has been over the years, it’s shocking to see them produce those kind of putrid numbers. But it’s likely their performance was an aberration and will positively regress to the mean going forward.
Still, it may be all the justification Kerr needs to trot out a more traditional lineup with a conventional centre for more minutes.
Curry is quiet again
Is it time to start worrying about Stephen Curry and, more specifically, his health?
For the second straight game, the Warriors guard was held in check to the tune of the 16 points on 7-of-19 shooting, including just 1-of-8 on 3-pointers.
Stephen Curry finished 1-8 on 3-pt FG after going 1-5 in Game 1.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 17, 2018
This is the 1st time in his career he's made 1 or fewer 3-pointers in consecutive playoff games
Afterward, both Curry and Kerr shook off any suggestions that he’s still dealing with lingering effects from a knee sprain that sidelined him for nearly all of March and April.
Curry’s numbers were fairly efficient in the second round, but his explosion and lift don’t appear to be back to 100 per cent.
There’s also some concern in how Golden State are using him on offence, which has seen the two-time MVP turn into more of a secondary option as Kevin Durant has been far and away the primary shot creator.
Houston’s defence and their aggressiveness in attacking Curry on the other end of the floor could also be reasons for why he’s looked unlike himself.
Regardless, if Curry doesn’t bounce back soon, this series – and the NBA Finals if Golden State advance – could be a lot closer than anticipated after Game 1.
On a night Stephen Curry wasn’t raining down his usual fire and Houston Rockets guard James Harden was practically unstoppable, Durant was the focal point for a Warriors offence that had no problem letting their star forward cook in one-on-one situations.
And cook Durant did, scoring 37 points on 14-of-27 shooting to lead Golden State to a 119-106 victory over the Rockets on the road.
Like Harden, who finished with a game-high 41 points and produced 1.67 points per play in 15 isolations, Durant was also dominant in isos, scoring 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Kevin Durant scored 27 of his 37 points on isolation plays and was one of the few players for Golden State to be effective in the 1-on-1 game pic.twitter.com/UEZcYQLf1R— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 15, 2018
The difference between the two teams, however, is their reliance on isolations. Whereas the Rockets’ main weapon is Harden and Chris Paul attacking one-on-one, the Warriors wield that approach with Durant as a secondary option.
“We want to keep the ball moving, but obviously Kevin is the ultimate luxury because a play can break down and you just throw him the ball,” coach Steve Kerr said. “He can get you a bucket as well as anybody on Earth. This is why anybody would want him on their team.
“You think about a couple years ago, and we’re in the Finals and we couldn’t quite get over the hump. Kevin is the guy that puts you over the hump. I don’t know what you do to guard him. He can get any shot he wants.”
On most other teams, Durant would likely be used heavily in one-on-one situations, but with how fluid and talented Golden State’s offence is, they have choices aplenty for ways to score.
Which is why Houston coach Mike D’Antoni will live with Durant taking what is normally considered a low-efficiency shot, while trying to take away open looks for the Warriors shooters.
“He is 7 feet and falling away. He’s one of the best scorers ever, right? So I thought he was extremely good. But we can withstand that,” D’Antoni said of Durant.
“We can’t withstand turning the ball over, missing layups, them getting out. Klay Thompson got up 15 [3-pointers]. We can’t give him 15 3s. We’re switching everything and staying off for that reason, so we have to clean up some stuff and see if we can do it on Wednesday.”
A scary notion for the Rockets, however, is that Golden State can potentially be even better.
Curry was limited to 18 points on 1-of-5 shooting from deep, while they now have three of the next five games (if needed) at home.
“I don’t know if we’re at our peak,” Durant said. “I think we could be better. I mean, the stakes are high. We’re playing the Western Conference finals against the best team in the league, the No1 seed, an MVP on their team. So I think everybody just wants to enjoy this time. Not a lot of people get this opportunity, so we want to take advantage of it.”