The Houston Rockets enter Wednesday’s game five with a 3-1 series lead over the Utah Jazz in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs.
James Harden has averaged about 25 points in the first four games of the series, actually a surprisingly low number considering the season he just showcased. In Monday’s loss to the Jazz, Chris Paul led the way with 23 points on the road.
The Rockets will inevitably advance by Utah, whether it happens Wednesday or sometime this weekend. But the real test awaits in the second round, just as it waited in the conference finals in 2018. The Rockets will have to once again take on the Golden State Warriors if they hope to have a shot at an NBA title.
The Western Conference was extremely tight all season long and the only thing that stood between a two seed for the current four-seeded Rockets was one win. The top-seeded Warriors also had a more pedestrian season with 57 wins, just four more than the Rockets.
But last season, the Rockets were the number one seed in the West and still could not find a way to knock off Golden State. This time, they will have to pick up some victories on the road if they hope to have a chance. This will be no easy task as the Warriors were 30-11 at the Oracle while Houston hovered around 500 on the road.
Despite the dominance of Golden State, the Rockets were right there in 2018 and even led the Warriors three games to two. But after they were blown out on the road, the Rockets could not find a way to take down the basketball juggernaut in a home game seven and saw their season come to an end.
If Houston has played worse than they were last year, the same can probably be said for Golden State. With rumors surrounding the departure of Kevin Durant, this could be the final time this Warriors team torments the rest of the NBA with their comically loaded roster.
But Houston was just a game away last year. If they can find a way to avenge that loss in the second round of this year’s postseason, they will advance to the Western Conference Finals for the second straight year.
Elsewhere in the West, the seven-seeded San Antonio Spurs were deadlocked at two games apiece with the Denver Nuggets entering game five in Colorado on Tuesday. The Nuggets, who finished just three games behind Golden State and out of the top spot, hold the two-seed in the Western Conference.
The winner of that series will likely meet the Portland Trailblazers, who attempted to close out their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday while leading three games to one. Portland finished with the same record as the Rockets but earned the three seed because of a tiebreaker.
The Rockets had a better record against the Western Conference as well as their division than the Blazers, but were still forced to play as the fourth seed due to other circumstances deemed more important by the league.
This is important because Houston has to play Golden State in the second round, a fate worse than death. But, to be fair, anyone who wants to win the Finals would have to go through them anyways.
In the Eastern Conference, the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics have already taken care of business in the first round with sweeps over the Detroit Pistons and Indianapolis Pacers, respectively.
Milwaukee, who has been dominant all season under the superstardom of Giannis Antetokounmpo, did not surprise anyone with their swift victory over the last seed in the East. But Boston’s series with the Pacers was between a four and a five seed and expected to go six or seven games.
But the Celtics are probably better than a four-seed. Granted, they have underachieved throughout the majority of the year and were picked by many to be the team to beat in the East back in November.
But they showcased what they were capable of by pulling away in four close contests in the final minutes over Indianapolis to move on. Their real test now will come against top-seeded Milwaukee in the second round. The Celtics have more experience, but the Bucks won more games than anyone in basketball in 2019.
Elsewhere in the East, the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors are on the verge of closing out their series and will likely matchup in the second round.
The NHL Playoffs are also getting ready to move into the second round of play this week as a few tightly contested series conclude with a game seven.
The two-seeded Boston Bruins hung on away from home in game six on Sunday to force a winner-take-all showdown with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday. The winner will advance to play the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Blue Jackets shocked the hockey world in round one by not only taking down a team with one of the best records in history, but doing it in just four games. Tampa Bay’s incredible record of 62-16 was not padded in the playoffs and they were stunned by the 47-win Jackets.
The San Jose Sharks and Las Vegas Knights would also need to decide their first round series with a games seven along with the defending champion Washington Capitals and the Carolina Hurricanes.