2018 NBA Playoff Thoughts: Conference Finals, Games 6 and 7 Edition (Simple Twist of Fate, One to Grow On)
With the Finals less than a week away, a brief rumination on each series. Houston and Golden State, a simple twist of fate.
There will be a Game 6 in the Western Conference Finals in Houston tonight. But the series continues without Chris Paul, hero of the second half of Game 4. The game in which Houston’s defense was absolutely vicious, relentless and smothering…stifling the Warriors at home in a way they haven’t been stifled in a playoff game since Durant arrived in the Bay Area. Andre Iguodala’s absence was critical, as Nick Young (-14) and Shaun Livingston (-15) couldn’t pick up the defensive or offensive slack Iguodala’s absence left behind.
In what might be the cruelest twist of fate in Chris Paul’s playoff history of cruel and unusual twists of fate, Paul’s hamstring was tweaked in Game 5, just as the Rockets were cementing their Game 5 win in Houston.
The absence of Paul will be gigantic as the series shifts back to Oakland tonight. Now Mike D’Antoni, James Harden and every Rockets aficionado will be hoping and praying that Chris Paul’s hamstring and sore foot allow him to play without a limp in Game 7.
The Rockets are defending the perimeter and the rim brilliantly. Clint Capela’s pick-and-roll awareness and acrobatics are ridiculous. P.J. Tucker’s ferocity is memorable. Trevor Ariza is channeling his inner Bruce Bowen. With those three defenders, Harden and Paul have had just enough help from Eric Gordon to push them over the top. I’m not sure how they survive without CP3 being close to fully healthy. Let’s hope Game 7 lives up to the hype. The fourth quarter of Game 4 was as intense as it gets.
Meanwhile, in the East…
Yes, much has been made of the age of this version (March 2018 — current) of the Boston Celtics. Al Horford, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes being the three members of the Celtics playoff rotation born before 1994. The other four (Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum) are still early in their NBA careers, but all four play with the court-awareness and mental toughness of savvy veterans. Anyone following the Celtics closely over the last two years knew that Smart and Brown were unfazed by the playoff atmosphere. Last year, in Jaylen’s first few games as a Celtic, he played about 20 minutes per game. In Game #5, against Cleveland, he was thrust into a starting role due to an injury, and responded with 19 points in 35 minutes, including 3 threes and 3 steals. Though he had his struggles from distance over the first half of his rookie year, Jaylen showed improved consistency by March.
Rozier’s astronomical growth in the last two months is more shocking to most. Over the last two seasons, he has watched two of the most dynamic scorers under 6'4" in the NBA lead the Celtics. Last year, he took in Isaiah Thomas’ scoring binges and 4th quarter heroics. This year, he witnessed Kyrie Irving’s clever handles and crazy shot-making in traffic. All the while, Terry worked on his shooting range, showing glimpses in the preseason of a much-improved shooter. Some players need the consistency of minutes to feel the flow. Rozier is all about flow. And now that the minutes are his, he’s been flowing. It’s hard to remember how young the four Celtics are because the coaching staff seems to understand the importance of blocking out anything that isn’t going to lead to confidence, empowerment and staying in the present moment. Too often, if they are on winning teams, young NBA players are subbed out when they make mistakes. Coaches rely on veterans as the wins get tougher. Playoff rotations are trimmed. Rookies sit and watch. Not this team. By default (injuries to Hayward and Irving) these Celtics have been thrust into the key moments.
One aspect to the collective mental strength of this team: the young guys have each other. Unlike Rajon Rondo from 2008–2010, thrust onto a team of proven All-Stars, under constant scrutiny by coach Doc Rivers, Rozier, Brown and Tatum have each other to grow with and to lean on. Everyone gets shots. Everyone digs in on defense. Their leaders, Al Horford on the court, and Brad Stevens on the bench, show no ego. They encourage a positive, selfless mindset. And now here they are, one win from the NBA Finals.
What will happen next year, when Kyrie and Hayward are healthy? Let’s enjoy the present as much as this team does. The Celtics are giving us all One to Grow On, as The UMC’s did back in 1991.
Yes, LeBron is LeBron is LeBron, and he is still on the Cleveland Cavs. Yes, he seems to transform into an even more mythical basketball being when faced with elimination, but these Celtics are not fazed, not daunted, not worried. The crowd will be raucous. Kevin Love may have sustained a concussion in that accidental first quarter head-to-head collision with Jayson Tatum. Love’s absence likely means extra minutes to the more athletic Larry Nance Jr. and Jeff Green (whose Game 6 performances were both critical).
Game 7s have the potential to create rare playoff moments. Let’s hope this does on Sunday. Go Celtics.
Here’s a link to my collection of essays on childhood, the Celtics, and a love of basketball.