I know, I know. I hear you. We went through an entire NBA season – all of its intricacies and storylines – just to end up in the same place we’ve been in the past three summers… with the Golden State Warriors once again meeting the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.
It’s Part IV of a seemingly never-ending saga which, at this rate, could surpass the total number of Star Wars movies. And no one sounds all that excited. Even fans residing in Oakland would have probably preferred to see another opponent in the final series of the season, while that definitely holds true for those in Cleveland, although mostly for different reasons.
Yet here we are. With LeBron James set to bring his one-man show up against the greatest collection of talent in NBA history. We’ll be lucky to get six games out of this, with another gentleman’s sweep by the Warriors appearing to be the most likely scenario.
Then what was the point of everything that preceded the Finals, you’re probably asking. It was all inevitable, right?
Actually, no. Even though we’re here again, it could have just as easily been different. And how close it was to being different should put an end to the apathetic outlook and narrative that this was all predictable from the start.
The Cavaliers and yes, even the Warriors, needed breaks to get to this point. Both teams were down 3-2 in the conference finals and had to win a Game 7 on the road – one of the toughest challenges in the sport. The sides who represented their final hurdles were both banged up with injuries – the Boston Celtics were without two All-Stars in Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, while the Houston Rockets didn’t have one of the greatest point guards of all-time in Chris Paul for the final two games.
Even with those circumstances already working in their favour, Cleveland and Golden State still needed their opponents to have horrendous shooting nights in Game 7 to advance.
The margin between winning and losing can often be minuscule and in the case of the conference finals, it was razor thin. As much as LeBron and the Warriors’ return to the Finals solidifies their respective greatness, it also proved they’re not infallible.
Really, this is a referendum on Golden State’s invincibility. That’s the only endgame we’ve been talking about since Kevin Durant decided to hop aboard an already-runaway train in the summer of 2016. Until it’s proven the Warriors can be stopped, we thought, all of this is pointless.
Well, the Rockets didn’t just get closer than anyone else against Golden State – they got as close as you can pretty much get, outside of a dramatic final minute in Game 7. And it wasn’t by fluke either. Houston were specifically built to beat the Warriors by relying on two elite shot-creators, switchable defence and high-variance 3-point shooting (which cruelly backfired in Game 7).
The Celtics’ precocious roster, meanwhile, came within minutes of knocking out LeBron before the Finals for the first time since 2010. And again, they got that far without two of their best players, while leaning on a 20-year-old rookie in Jayson Tatum who is on a path to super-stardom.
Houston and Boston don’t appear to be going anywhere. If anything, they should be stronger next season and peskier challenges to Golden State and Cleveland. Even without significant roster change and, say, LeBron joining Paul and James Harden, there’s a decent chance we could get the Rockets-Celtics Finals we barely missed out on this time around.
So swallow that pill and endure one more rematch between these same old teams in the Finals, because it may be the last time the end result is this predictable again.
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.