Wiedmer: Too bad Rockets and Warriors can't meet in NBA Finals

Wiedmer: Too bad Rockets and Warriors can't meet in NBA Finals

April 17th, 2018 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Houston Rockets' Clint Capela shoots around Minnesota Timberwolves' Taj Gibson during the first half in Game 1 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series Sunday, April 15, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Other than Golden State beginning this year's NBA playoffs looking as if it was more than ready to defend its title and Houston's James Harden — he of the 44 points in Sunday's series-opening win over Minnesota — looking like the only player who could stop a Warriors repeat, there haven't appeared to be too many sure things one weekend into the league's eight opening-round series.

At least there wasn't much certainty beyond this quote from Cleveland Cavaliers forward Rodney Hood, who said of that 98-80 stinker the LeBron James Gang delivered against Indiana on Sunday: "We can't play any worse than we did."

Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant (35) celebrates a score with Draymond Green, left, as San Antonio Spurs' Rudy Gay (22) watches during the second half in Game 1 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series Saturday, April 14, 2018, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant (35) celebrates a...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Back in the early 1980s, when the opening round was sometimes best-of-three, this could have been catastrophic for the Cavs, who have reached three straight NBA Finals and won it all in 2016 since the return of James to his Ohio roots.

But if anyone doubted how much former point guard Kyrie Irving meant to Cleveland, Saturday was a rancid reminder. Regardless of how much or little Irving and King James got along, the Cavs were much more dangerous with Irving running the show than without him.

Eighty points. Repeat that paltry number in your head a couple of times. On their home court, fresh off 11 wins in their last 14 games, the Cavs caved, trailing by as many as 21 points in the first period. No one can mount a comeback better than James, but this time he came up short, losing a first-round playoff game for the first time since 2012, a span of 22 such games.

But while Cleveland got blown out on its home court, the Boston Celtics — who thought they'd have the former Cav Irving to spark them on a title run until knee surgery sidelined him for this postseason — were pulling out an overtime thriller on Sunday, complete with 3-pointers by both the Celts (Terry Rozier) and Milwaukee Bucks (Khris Middleton) inside the final second of regulation.

That's right. The final second. Two triples in less than a second.

As the TV commercial once said: The NBA, it's fantastic!

But is it as predictable as in many past seasons, when you were all but certain of the Finals combatants, whether it be Celtics-Lakers, Heat-Spurs or, as has been the case the past three seasons, Warriors-Cavs?

After one weekend — and it's always dangerous to put too much stock in a single game — it would seem that Philadelphia and its rookie sensation Ben Simmons could make a serious run in the East, given they entered Monday night's playoff game against Miami having won 17 straight.

Simmons is Magic Johnson 2.0, every bit as big, crafty and versatile. No, he doesn't shoot it great, but neither did Magic, especially early in his career. The Sixers could still have a tough time with the Heat or any of their remaining East foes should they advance past Miami, and even as good as Simmons is, it's hard to see Philly adding to the City of Brotherly Love's trophy case should it reach the Finals.

Still, no one thought the NFL's Eagles would beat New England in the Super Bowl, and many believed Duke would win the NCAA basketball tournament instead of those Philly Phelines known as the Villanova Wildcats.

Yet to watch Golden State, even without Stephen Curry in the opening round, is to believe the Warriors are still the team to beat, no matter how many points Harden scores nightly for the Rockets.

What's sad is that in much the same way Villanova-Kansas in the Final Four semifinals came one round too soon, Houston-Golden State should be the Finals instead of which team becomes the best of the West. Either the Warriors or Rockets appear to be enough better than anyone from the East that it would almost be a moral victory for the East winner to avoid losing in a sweep.

But that's a long way off. The Finals don't begin until May 31. Between now and then we have three best-of-seven rounds to complete. Injuries could weaken the favorites. Someone like Oklahoma City, blessed with two of the top 10 or 15 players in the game in guard Russell Westbrook and forward Paul George — along with the X factor Carmelo Anthony — could put it all together long enough to shock either Golden State or Houston. And it would be a shock.

That's the beauty of a tournament where one loss doesn't mean you're done.

It does, however, mean that if King James expects to reach a preposterous eighth straight Finals, his teammates are going to have to do better than hit 23.5 percent of their 3-pointers and a woeful 60 percent of their free throws from here on out. Not that James appeared overly concerned to be down 1-0 heading into Wednesday's game two against the Pacers.

"I mean, I'm down 0-1 in the first round," he said. "I was down 3-1 in the Finals (and won in 2016)."

Fair enough. But the only teams capable of coming from 3-1 down in this year's NBA playoffs are the Rockets and Warriors, and at the end of the Finals one of them will answer to "world champions."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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