The Houston Rockets had a rare opportunity to put the Warriors in a corner last week, but instead dropped a pair of critical late-series games and have been eliminated by Golden State for the second consecutive season.
The window of opportunity revealed itself in the third quarter of game six last Wednesday in Golden State. In the midst of a close contest, Kevin Durant came down wrong after a shot and appeared to be in quite a bit of pain. Many feared it would be a longterm Achilles tear, but Durant escaped with a mild sprain in his right calf.
Still, he would not return for the game or the remainder of the series. Houston’s chances of dethroning the Warriors were suddenly beginning to seem realistic, especially if they found a way to kick Golden State while they were down and prevail in game six at the Oracle.
If you take the best player away from most basketball teams, they will obviously become substantially less effective on the court. But the Warriors are not most basketball teams. Durant is probably the best player in the world these days besides LeBron James, but Golden State won a record 73 regular season games during the 2016 season while K.D. was still an un-vilified member of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Take away Durant from the champs and you still have to put up with two of the best shooters in history in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson along with Draymond Green and former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala.
It is important to remember that Durant simply makes the Warriors unfair. But they were a one-seed well before his arrival.
Still, you would have to think that your chances to win a tight series multiply when Durant is taken out of the equation. This was not the case for Houston. The duo of Thompson and Curry, also known as the “Splash Brothers”, combined for 52 points in the critical game five to make up for Durant’s late absence. The two would come alive again in Houston for game six to officially eliminate the Rockets.
Entering the second half on Friday, it appeared as if Curry would finish with one of his weakest performances in the postseason and that the series would shift back to Golden State for a seventh game. But in the final 12 minutes, Curry was not to be denied.
For the first time in his impressive career, Curry did not score in the first half of play. He would come alive in the second half, mainly the final quarter, and lead the Warriors with 33 points in the 118-113 victory. Thompson offered steady production throughout the game for Golden State and finished with 27.
It is not fair to say the Rockets choked. Losing to the Golden State Warriors, Durant or no Durant, is never anything to be ashamed of. However, you cannot help but look at the series as a missed opportunity. While no one was rooting for someone to get injured, it seemed that the Durant sprain came at just the right time for the Rockets as they attempted to take a three games to two lead in game five. They should have gotten to a seventh game at the Oracle at the very least, but you can never expect someone to beat the Warriors.
Durant, meanwhile, will be reevaluated as the team takes on the Portland Trail Blazers in the Eastern Conference Finals. It is possible that he misses significant time in the series. Game one took place on Tuesday evening in Golden State.
In the East, the Milwaukee Bucks will meet the Toronto Raptors to decide who gets to advance to the Finals. The Bucks silenced their critics with four straight victories over the Boston Celtics after dropping game one and have shown why they won over 60 games in the regular season.
The Raptors are coming off of a dramatic buzzer beater in game seven of a series with the Philadelphia 76ers. Kawhi Leonard fired an off-balance shot as time expired in regulation on Sunday and the ball bounced multiple times on the rim before falling through.
The Bucks and Raptors will begin the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday in Milwaukee.
The Conference Finals are also underway in the National Hockey League and the Boston Bruins have looked like the most efficient squad as of Monday.
The Bruins knocked off the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets in two tight series to advance to the Conference Finals, but have asserted themselves with a two games to none advantage over the Carolina Hurricanes this time out.
Boston looked unstoppable in Sunday’s game two victory and led 6-0 at one point before taking a foot off of the gas. Will we see yet another championship in Boston?
The Canes have embraced the underdog role in the postseason. In the first round, they knocked off top-seed and defending Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals in seven games. The Canes then dominated the New York Islanders in a four-game sweep to set up their date with the Bruins.
The San Jose Sharks continued to cruise through the postseason on the other side of the bracket with a commanding 6-3 win over the St. Louis Blues in game one. The Blues advanced to the Western Conference Finals with a game seven victory over the Dallas Stars.