One timeout was all that separated the Cleveland Cavaliers from potentially, vitally making this a series. We were so close. We were as close to Heaven as we’ll ever be. But JR Smith had other ideas.
Somewhere between Chris Paul’s hamstring injury in Game 5 and their dubious, NBA playoff-record streak of 27 consecutive missed three-pointers in the second half of Game 7, the Houston Rockets lost the best chance any team was going to have of felling the Golden State Warriors. It was foolish for any of us to doubt them – not that all of us did, mind you, but some did – and now, the team which stands to define a generation sits four wins away from its second straight title and third championship in four years.
The proposition was always thus: beat the Warriors, a team with four current All-Stars, five probably Hall of Famers and a wealth of role players to fill in the gaps, four times in seven tries. Even after the Rockets won 65 games, grabbing the top seed and home court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs, it was never a real possibility that Golden State would lose until and unless such a catastrophe actually happened.
After going down 3-2 and entering halftime of both Games 6 and 7 down by double-digits, Golden State calmly and mechanically worked its way back, outscoring Houston 64-25 and 58-38 over each game’s second half, respectively. As always, the Warriors were able to turn to all of their other stars if one didn’t shine so brightly. That didn’t turn out to be a problem.
Oh, how quickly we forget. Or maybe it’s just about wanting to believe in something, anything, so much right now, surrounded by *gestures more broadly than any wingspan at the NBA combine could contain* all of this, that we can talk ourselves into believing in the most irrational things. Just look at [caters to your political leaning by making a correspondingly tactful reference to current proceedings]. Somewhere between Roger Daltrey and George W. Bush, however, we were supposed to have learned not to get fooled again. And yet, here we are, forcing ourselves into this dance once again like a spurned defender asking for a second helping of James Harden.
Are we really going to do this? We’re going to do this. Alright, fine, let’s do this: Houston had a problem, and then it remembered its own solution, and now the Western Conference Finals are tied 1-1. This doesn’t solve anything.
You remember the switch, don’t you? Consider it flipped. Riding a fully-engaged LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers ripped the doors off the Toronto Raptors in Game 4 on Monday night, completing another sweep against a team which hasn’t beaten them in the playoffs since 2016. In a rather pedestrian performance, James chipped in a mere 29 points to go along with 11 assists and eight rebounds. It was certainly his worst game of the series, and the Cavs won by 35.
It took a surprising seven-game first round series against the Indiana Pacers to really light a fire under him, but since the candle’s been burning, he has been his typical forceful self. What finally clicked against the Raptors wasn’t just LeBron riding the high of his clutch Pacers series form. Instead, as LeBron was great, so, too, were his teammates. Better late than never.
It all feels pretty much normal now, doesn’t it? It’s the first week of May, and we have: LeBron treating the Air Canada Centre like a rental property; the Warriors strutting out to a 2-0 series lead over New Orleans, thanks in part to the return of Steph Curry and despite the ongoing dominance of Anthony Davis; the Wizards watching from home by the second round; and the Rockets having decimated the league’s best defensive team of the second half of the season (and subsequently falling in Game 2, calling into question Houston’s bona fides).
By most accounts, even after one of the most exciting first rounds in recent NBA playoff memory, everything is pretty much going according to plan. Everything, that is, except for the other Eastern Conference Semifinal, featuring two young-ish teams boasting a wealth of talent and assets. It wouldn’t have been totally unreasonable to expect either the Philadelphia 76ers or the Boston Celtics to be in their current positions, but to have done it like this, each in their own, singular ways, is as impressive as it is foreboding.
It is admittedly unusual for us to recap a single game from a first round playoff series. Even elimination games, which are so ripe for assessment and criticism, both in the immediate aftermath and as time wears ceaselessly on heading into every other team’s offseason. Free agency beckons; fresh wounds heal, but the scars can inform decisions for players and teams, altering the direction of the entire league.
As such, the Utah Jazz’s prompt dispatch of the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games calls for some prompt discernment. Russell Westbrook is the center of the Thunder’s galaxy, and as such, he draws adulation and condemnation in equal measures. He deserves considerable amounts of both, to be certain, but context is vital. Collective blame is undoubtedly shared in Oklahoma City.
Russell Westbrook is not going to save us. He can barely save himself, and he had to turn out an all-time playoff performance down 3-1 on Wednesday night to do so. The man who captivated us for all of last season, his stat-stuffing bonanzas bordering on joyous incontinence, who posted a triple-double average again, proving that context actually does play into the MVP award, finally combined with Paul George (and without Carmelo Anthony) to sail past the Utah Jazz in one of the most remarkable second halves the playoffs have ever seen. Still, he faces imminent danger.
A year after capturing the basketball zeitgeist, examining it closely and then firing it directly into the sun, Westbrook has led a re-tooled, if not altogether “better,” Oklahoma City Thunder team back to the playoffs. For most teams, this is, at worst, a modest success, something upon which to build no matter the outcome. For a Thunder team that did exactly this a year ago and then went out and got Paul George and the Tupperware container inside which the rotten remains of Carmelo Anthony live in the back of the refrigerator, however, a second consecutive first round exit would be nothing short of disastrous.