It looked for a moment like the Golden State Warriors weren’t going to get back to the NBA Finals, but a comeback effort earned them a fourth straight trip as the beat the Houston Rockets 101-92 in Game 7.
Houston were actually in control in the first half and had Golden State reeling, but everything started to shift in the Warriors’ favour in the third quarter and the Rockets could never recover.
Here are the key factors that decided the contest.
What went right for the Warriors
Another third-quarter run
Golden State exploding in the third quarter, especially in games they’ve trailed at halftime, has become like clockwork. So even though they went into halftime of Game 7 in an 11-point hole, you knew a run was inevitable after the intermission. And that’s exactly what happened.
The Warriors outscored Houston 33-17 in the third period as Stephen Curry caught fire, tallying 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting, including 4-of-5 from deep, to put them ahead.
If you remove the third quarter, the Rockets edged Golden State 77-68 for the game. But beating the Warriors is just as much about surviving that third-quarter charge as anything else.
The Warriors out-scored the Rockets by 68 points in the seven third quarters in the series. And, by my count, the Warriors out-scored Houston by just 63 points in the entire series.— Dan Woike (@DanWoikeSports) May 29, 2018
Greatest shooters for a reason
It’s not often you’ll see a game decided so heavily by the shooting discrepancy between the teams. While the Rockets couldn’t buy a 3-pointer for much of the contest, the Warriors’ sharpshooters showed why they’re considered some of the greatest marksmen in history.
It seemed like Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Curry hit contested look after contested look in the second half, which was particularly defeating for Houston when juxtaposed with the their own wide open misses on the other end.
As unfair as it felt, that’s just how it goes against Golden State sometimes. They’re so talented and such good shooters that even air-tight defence – which the Rockets played a lot of in Game 7 and in the series as a whole – couldn’t stop the barrage of triples.
What went wrong for the Rockets
Historically poor shooting
The Rockets started the contest hitting 3-of-5 from the deep, but their shooting went downhill in a hurry as they hit just 4-of-39 the rest of the way, including a playoff record 27 consecutive misses. Most of those shots were clean looks too. But whether it was James Harden (2-of-13), Eric Gordon (2-of-12) or Trevor Ariza (0-of-9), no one could connect.
You can’t blame Houston for living and – in this case – dying by the 3 because that’s what their offence was built on all season. And it worked more often than not. It was just the worst time to go ice cold.
I mean... This pretty much explains it. pic.twitter.com/B08JMyBWsc— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 29, 2018
It may be a cop out to use a guy who didn’t even play as a reason why a team lost, but Chris Paul‘s absence was felt incredibly in Game 7.
On a night the Rockets’ shooting went south, the team was in desperate need of another creator next to Harden who could score on his own and keep the offence afloat during their struggles. A healthy Paul would have been able to provide just that and it’s fair to wonder how different this series ends up if he didn’t suffer the hamstring strain at the end of Game 5.
Unfortunately, we’ll never know if Houston at full strength could have ended the Warriors’ run.
LeBron James unsurprisingly led the way with 35 points on 12-of-24 shooting, along with 15 rebounds, nine assists and two blocks. As great as he was, however, he also had eight turnovers and needed other things outside of his control to go his way.
Here’s a look at the factors that made the difference in Game 7.
What went right for the Cavaliers
The non-LeBron Cavaliers weren’t great, but they provided James with just enough support to pull out the win.
It didn’t look like that would be the case early on though as James had 12 of the team’s 18 points in the first quarter, in which his team-mates shot just 2-of-9. But in the final three periods, the non-LeBrons had 46 of Cleveland’s 69 points and shot 16-of-33.
No one was better than Jeff Green, who started in place of Kevin Love and had 19 points, knocking down timely shots in the second half.
LeBron’s supporting cast get plenty of criticism and much of it is deserved, but they came through for their leader when he needed them most.
In 2012, Jeff Green wasn't sure he'd be able to play basketball anymore. Now, he's headed to his first #NBAFinals!— NBA (@NBA) May 28, 2018
Check out his best buckets from Game 6 & Game 7 (33 PTS combined) of the Eastern Conference Finals.#WhateverItTakes #NBAPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/4SV0wgeu8b
Attacking in transition
Cleveland’s 16 fast-break points for the game might not seem that notable, but considering they scored 87 in total, their aggression in transition was critical.
Boston’s defence showed up and performed as it had throughout the playoffs at home, which made everything hard for the Cavaliers’ offence in the half-court. So instead of always slowing the pace, James often attacked to catch the Celtics off-guard before they could set up their defence.
Key to that was Boston missing so many shots, which sprung the Cavaliers and gave James a head of steam.
What went wrong for the Celtics
Make or miss league
Plain and simple, Boston let a golden opportunity slip away by missing shots. You can’t hold a LeBron-led offence to 87 points in a Game 7 and then not score enough to win.
It was just one of those nights for the Celtics, who hit 34.1 per cent from the field and 7-of-39 from long range. A lot of them were quality looks too, but they made just 17-of-51 uncontested looks.
It was a bad time for the team to have one of their worst shooting games of the season.
Tatum and Horford not fed enough
It’s an unfortunate byproduct of the Celtics’ fluid offence that players who are going well aren’t always fed repeatedly. The equal opportunity approach is ideal when it’s working, but Game 7 was not one of those times.
With Rozier, Smart and Brown mightily struggling, Boston should have put the ball in Tatum and Horford’s hands much more. Cleveland didn’t have much of an answer for Tatum – outside LeBron – all series and especially not in Game 7 when he 24 points, while Horford was feasting on post touches.
Those two finished with only 29 field goal attempts, while the Celtics’ five other players to see time in the game combined to shoot 13-of-56.
It’s good to strive for balance, but it’s better to go with what’s working when your season is on the line.
Greatness can be defined in many ways. When it comes to LeBron James, his greatness lies in making the extraordinary look ordinary, the remarkable look routine and the unprecedented look customary.
We can do the whole LeBron vs Michael Jordan debate to death, but with James preparing to play in his eighth straight NBA Finals, it’s more interesting to examine what makes him so exceptional in his own unique way.
The only other players in NBA history to have reached eight straight Finals were part of the Boston Celtics teams of the 1950s and 60s. No disrespect to Bill Russell, who is the greatest winner the sport has ever seen with 11 rings and 10 consecutive Finals appearances, but the game and league now are incomparable to that time period.
LeBron's been in the NBA Finals longer than most players have been in the NBA. pic.twitter.com/tPMMl2THJU— SB Nation (@SBNation) May 28, 2018
In the modern day, no one has done what LeBron has. You can wave his 3-5 record in the Finals around all you want in an attempt to diminish him or make another all-time great look better in comparison, but ultimately it won’t be James’ ceiling that will be the primary reason he goes down as arguably the GOAT (greatest of all-time), but rather his baseline.
By beating the Celtics 87-79 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday, LeBron solidified something we had already theorised but never had definitive proof of: that he can take any team to the Finals, regardless of circumstances.
There is no Kyrie Irving anymore to be the Robin to James’ Batman and help carry the load. Kevin Love, the only other All-Star on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ roster, played all of five minutes in Game 6 before suffering a concussion that kept him out of the decider. And even he has struggled to play that sidekick role. LeBron’s chief support in Game 7? Jeff Green.
Cleveland started the season with one roster and are going to the Finals with another. What remained after a slew of deadline deals was a veteran cast with championship experience, but role players nonetheless who’ve wildly fluctuated in the playoffs.
The one true constant has been James and he has somehow managed to drag this incredibly flawed and top-heavy team to the Finals, proving he can get as close as possible to winning it all by himself, no matter who’s around him.
When Bill Russell reached his 8th straight Finals appearances, he had 7 teammates in the clincher.— Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13) May 28, 2018
6 of the 7 were Hall of Famers.
The other was a 4-time All-Star who once averaged 25 PPG.
In the win to clinch his 8th straight, LeBron's highest scoring teammate was Jeff Green.
Simply reaching the Finals, of course, is not the ultimate goal for anyone, let alone for a deity like LeBron. Winning the title is always the mission and it’s likely James is going to fall short of that again in what may well be another lopsided Finals.
But there’s a wide gap between competing for a title and actually winning one, which is why practically every team that has ever hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy did so with multiple All-Stars or future Hall-of-Famers. It’s really damn hard to reach the top of the summit in the NBA and no one can do it on their own.
No one was supposed to come this close to doing it on their own either. Yet here we are, with LeBron having broken that barrier. He’s exceeded our wildest imaginations for how much impact one single player can have on a basketball court.
You might be saying, “What has James really accomplished? Everyone expected him to get back to the Finals and his competition wasn’t anything great, especially compared to the West.”
It’s true the Cavaliers may have already been eliminated by now if they were in the West bracket and that they needed seven games to dispatch an undermanned Celtics team missing two All-Stars to injury. It’s also true that LeBron has mostly met expectations at this point as he was always the favourite to return to the Finals.
Those expectations, however, weren’t based on the capabilities of the Cavaliers as a whole. They were the result of blind faith in James. And even though that faith was tested more than it ever has been, LeBron still rewarded it in the end.
If that’s not greatness personified, what is?