By Jon Carlos RodriguezThe Warriors-Cavs Finals matchup was inevitable. But for long stretches in the regular season, and for brief moments yesterday and today, the Boston Celtics and the Houston Rockets made us believe in the alternative. We should do shots to honor their efforts.
With less than seven minutes left in the game, Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens calmly called timeout to stop the bleeding. LeBron James, a 6-foot-8 walking chainsaw, had just wrecked the Celtics defense to give his Cleveland Cavaliers a four-point lead.
Earlier, the Celtics allowed a 12-point cushion to slip away, and now their chance to end LeBron’s reign in the East was slipping away with it. Stevens knew that if his team’s miraculous run was to continue, this was the exact moment to fight back.
Off the timeout, Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum got the ball as he curled from the right side of the floor towards the top of the key. With the weight of a disintegrating season on his 20-year-old shoulders, Tatum took two dribbles and found himself face-to-face with destiny: just him, the ball, and the man standing between him and the NBA Finals. Tatum and LeBron, the student and The King, took off at the same time, with the same intensity and same war-driven purpose. Blink and you’d miss what happened next.
But the aftermath was telling enough. Al Horford had both his arms up, both palms wide open in victory. Marcus Morris flexed and let out a scream usually reserved for WWE promos. A fan in a Kyrie Irving jersey got up from his seat to celebrate the moment. Kevin Harlan gushed. Tatum, still bouncing around from the impact, bumped his chest into LeBron. On the next Celtics possession, Tatum hit a step-back 3 that gave Boston a one-point lead. It was then when Boston, up 72-71, appeared to finally embrace its fate.
They were a house of cards assembled in the offseason for the sole purpose of beating Cleveland, but as the season went along, the pieces fell one-by-one, until all that was left was scraps of a rookie with a chip on his shoulder, a scary back-up PG, a Morris twin, and an average guy who twitches at free throw bricks. Stevens, despite missing his two All-Stars in Irving and Gordon Hayward, got the team to the peak and held them together as long as he could…until everything fell apart and crashed down to earth.
That one-point advantage in the fourth quarter of Game 7 would be the closest that Boston got in advancing to the NBA Finals. The Cavs went on a 16-7 blitz to end the game and that was that. Dream over. Next.
The Houston Rockets, a team with the best win-loss regular season record, forged a similar path as the Celtics.
After watching the Warriors trip themselves in Game 5, the Rockets were two wins away from the NBA Finals. They were almost there. In Games 6 and 7, the Rockets were able to masterfully craft works of art in the first half, only to have the Warriors mercilessly piss on it during their customary third quarter explosions.
There was a play in the middle of the Warriors’ third quarter run in Game 7 where the disrespect reached its peak. With the score tied at 61, Steph Curry lost James Harden at the halfcourt line with a nifty behind-the-back dribble. Gaining momentum, Curry blew past Clint Capela and appeared to set him up for one of his trademark reverse layups. But Eric Gordon blocked Curry’s path, and in the process leaving his man Jordan Bell at the left baseline. Curry threw a pass to the open Bell and everything froze—except Curry, who continued his orbit around the baseline, away from Gordon and Capela, then behind Bell to the left corner 3. Bell snuck a pass between his legs to the open Curry. 64-61, Warriors.
That basket gave the Warriors their first lead since the first quarter. The Rockets would never lead again. Good job, good effort. Better luck next time.
The Celtics deserve credit for pushing the Cavs to play LeBron for ALL 48 MINUTES of Game 7, as in he wasn’t allowed a coffee break. The Rockets deserve credit for almost pushing Warriors head coach Steve Kerr to quit his job mid-game.
Both the Celtics and the Rockets were missing key parts of the game plan, specifically designed to break the Warriors-Cavs cycle. Both also had good looks at a shot to eliminate their respective rivals. But if you don’t make them (the Celtics missed 32 three-point attempts in Game 7; the Rockets at one point missed 27 straight 3s in Game 7), then there’s no excuse.
There’s only the promise of a better tomorrow, one where a healthy Irving and Hayward are the ones taking turns with the big shots; one where a healthy Chris Paul is there to steady the Rockets.
It’s an unstable Warriors versus a tired Cavs meeting in the NBA Finals for the fourth straight time. After what the Rockets and Celtics put them through, there are finally signs that this could be the last.
[videos from YouTube; thumbnail from NBA]