The Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors wrapped up their five-game eliminations of, respectively, the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans last night. Like the series they ended, neither game was particularly closely contested; both losing teams did just enough to preserve their dignity and no more. That’s more than can be said of the East’s top seed, but it’s still not very much.
These dull games fit neatly into an annoying pattern: The Western Conference playoffs have been shitty! No series has gone a full seven games; only one, Jazz-Thunder in the first round, has even gone six. That series, with the upstart Jazz and their rookie star, Donovan Mitchell, knocking off the top-heavy Thunder, supplied the only real drama on that whole side of the playoff bracket. The sixth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans upset the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, but it was an unsightly one-sided sweep mostly memorable for exposing the Blazers as total frauds. Neither the Rockets nor the Warriors has had to withstand more than token resistance en route to the conference finals.
Meanwhile, the East has been pretty good, and here and there great. The top-seeded Toronto Raptors wobbled a bit in the first round, raising the specter of their previous postseason flameouts, then came unglued in the second. The second-seeded Celtics, hobbled by injuries and reinventing themselves on the fly nightly, needed seven tough games to get by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round; they’re up 3-1 on the third-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in this series, but the games have been twisty and dramatic, the basketball has been good, and the teams seem genuinely to dislike each other. The Sixers arrived in this round via a pretty decisive five-game defeat of the Heat, but the five games were physical and spicy, at least. The fourth-seeded Cavs looked all but dead at several points in their hard-fought seven-game series against the feisty Pacers, and only advanced to the second round because LeBron James played some of the best basketball of his entire career and hit a game-winning buzzer-beater that people will still be talking about years from now. Their second-round sweep of the Raptors featured very little actual on-court drama, but has restored to plausibility the idea that Playoff LeBron might just be great enough to carry even these Cavs to a championship. That’s good.
No matter what happens in the East, though, only the West can supply a meeting of the NBA’s two best teams: the Rockets and Warriors. To no small degree, the 2017-18 season—and the 2017 offseason—has been a prelude to this series. The Rockets won 55 games and a playoff series last season, but still blew up their rotation to bring Chris Paul over from Los Angeles, pretty much solely in hopes of beating the Warriors. Their rotation is mapped to Golden State’s: It’s loaded with switchy, stretchy defenders like Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Clint Capela, and Luc Mbah a Moute to snake their long arms into the shooting and passing spaces opened up by the Warriors’ constant motion, and three-point shooters everywhere, waves on waves of them, to match and possibly even exceed the Warriors’ world-historic firepower. They’re a team built to get James Harden past Golden State, and then to steamroll whatever lesser opponent they meet in the Finals.
The Warriors, for their part, cruised through the regular season in third gear, slow-walking their stars’ returns from relatively minor injuries and openly treating it as busy work along the way to the games they care about. When Steph Curry hurt his knee in March, they shut him down not just for the end of the regular season but for the entire first round of the playoffs, too. He only returned to limited action in the Pelicans series: to help the Warriors get quickly through a series they could have won in maybe one or two more games without him, sure, but more importantly to warm himself up for the Rockets. Fittingly, the two teams advanced on the same night, neither allowing the other a 48-hour head start on resting and preparing for what’s next.
Well, here we are! The only thing that can redeem these butt West playoffs, the only payoff worthy of all the choices these teams made with their eyes on each other, is seven kick-ass games between two great teams with wildly contrasting styles and genuine contempt for each other. Haymaker runs! Clutch heroics! A rain of three-pointers the likes of which the world has never beheld! Draymond Green and Chris Paul dick attacks! And most importantly, genuine uncertainty over who’ll advance!
The Warriors will be up to the job. You can be sure of that. The Rockets are, uh, less certain. To say that their two stars, Harden and Paul, are question marks at this stage of the playoffs is to do them the kindness of not saying they are safe bets to crap themselves and finish their season in total embarrassment. Harden has punctuated enough playoff runs with bizarre dead-eyed meltdowns that you can call it a pattern; Paul’s mostly upheld his standard of play in his postseason career (and was great last night), but his star-studded Clippers teams were famous for turning 50-plus-win regular seasons into quick playoff failures, and this is his first trip past the second round, ever.
The Warriors eliminated the Rockets in 2015 and 2016, the only two times the Curry Warriors and Harden Rockets have met in the playoffs. Chris Paul’s Clippers were the last team to eliminate Golden State short of the Finals, knocking the Warriors out in the first round in 2014. Paul hasn’t met Golden State in the playoffs since then, though in the aftermath of that series the Warriors always made an obvious point of trashing his Clippers in the regular season, racking up an 11-1 record in those games until Paul left for Houston last summer. There’s plenty of history here, is the point, and most of it looks pretty bad for the players who will have the biggest roles in determining Houston’s fate.
Or, in more optimistic terms: There’s plenty of motivation for them to want to kick the Warriors’ dicks off over the next two weeks! This is the thing to hope for, even if you are not particularly rooting for the Rockets (personally, I find their militantly math-circumscribed, isolation-heavy style of play pretty hard to watch and their key players pretty hard to like, but also, the Warriors can go to hell). A fired-up Houston team, focused and determined to seize what might be the best shot they’ll ever have at scaling what probably is, at full strength and full exertion, the best team in the history of the sport, could give these playoffs a desperate, personal, bitterly contested heavyweight playoff series for the ages.
They could even win! Well no, haha, they probably can’t win, I mean c’mon, let’s not get crazy here.