The Conference Finals are all but solidified, but each series thus far has shown us why the leaders are in fact leading.
The Facts: Houston jumped out early and did a yeoman’s job in never letting the Jazz get any sort of foothold, even on their home court. The Rockets led by 10 at the half, 14 after three, and that was just enough padding so Utah would have had to play a perfect 4th to have a shot at winning (they didn’t). Houston now heads home ready to wrap this up, and Utah hasn’t shown much to prove anything different might happen.
The Reaction: One of my more self-evident statements of truth is that, if you want to beat good teams, you have to play well. Good teams are good precisely because they don’t beat themselves, even when they aren’t playing great (see: Boston below). The Rockets are a very good team and likely one of the two teams that will win the championship this season. To beat them, you have to play consistently well.
And perhaps that is the biggest lesson Utah is learning now — in the NBA, there will be opportunities to make up big deficits, but when the opening materializes, you can’t miss. Utah repeatedly figuratively and literally missed. In their last, best chance to win this game, with just under 6 minutes to go, the Jazz had cut the lead to 5. In the next few minutes, Utah missed multiple layups (3 by Donovan Mitchell), failed to grab defensive boards, and even with the Rockets struggling, failed to seize the moment, and now their moment is about to end.
When this series wraps up, the unsung hero for Houston is going to be Clint Capela. He has been a monster in this series, and with 12 points, 15 boards, and 6 blocks in game 5, is single-handedly destroying Utah’s offense at the rim.
2. Warriors’ Hamptons 5 surge over Pels
The Facts: Golden State revved its engines and surged back into control of the series. Kevin Durant led the way with 38 on 15-27 shooting, while Stephen Curry chipped in with 23 points in 32 minutes. The Pelicans got a decent game out of Anthony Davis with 26-12, but despite getting to the FT line 30 times, their 3-point game was way off (4-26) and couldn’t match the Warriors’ base firepower.
The Reaction: The Pelicans aren’t even playing that badly, and the Warriors aren’t even playing that well. But the talent disparity is so vast, and the mere presence of Curry on the court opens everything up for Durant. New Orleans can never double-team Durant with Curry out there, his gravity is so significant. Even with Curry still not fully reinvigorated from his injury, he completely changes the equation, which is why Steve Kerr says quite frankly Durant is the better player, but Curry is the more important one. I concur, and I don’t think that’s a slight against KD.
The Facts: Boston once again showed true grit in surviving against the more talented 76ers by getting a big overtime win. Despite not playing well as compared to previous games, the Celtics used key opportunities late to produce easy buckets and get key turnovers against the more vaunted Philly backcourt of J.J. Redick and Ben Simmons. A key bucket and steal by Al Horford puts Philly in a deathlock.
The Reaction: Even though every series at this point is all but determined, this is perhaps the most competitive and meaningful one because of what would appear to be a wide disparity in talent. Yet Boston never gets rattled, even falling behind big early, and figures out how to tip the scales when the game depends on it.
You have probably already seen the key ATO plays that Brad Stevens dialed up to crush the 76ers’ hopes this post-season. Here’s the one thing that makes me grin the most though — after the Jaylen Brown layup and the Al Horford game winner happened, Joel Embiid is left with a look on his face of, “Why am I 30 feet away from the rim while some dude is scoring a layup?”
The lesson — Philly isn’t quite ready for this kind of competition (understandable) and Embiid has a long ways to go before he becomes the most important player on the court, which is what he needs to be if his team is to make a deep playoff run.
4. LeBron LeBronning and let’s take a break from talking about him for a while
The Facts: The Cavaliers, behind LeBron James’ 38-6-7, looked to bury the Raptors. However, Toronto mounted a big comeback in the 4th, and with a three by Og Onunoby, completed the comeback. Which only set the table for James to once again rip their hearts out with as ridiculous a game winner as you will ever see.
The Reaction: Somehow, cruising to a big game 3 win wasn’t enough for Cleveland. No, they had to take it to the next level of guillotine wins. Maybe this is the NBA universe righting itself after all those years of Michael Jordan tormenting them.
It’s incredible what LeBron is doing now, so just enjoy it.