If you zoom out a level, you would see the status quo. You’d see the Cavaliers and the Warriors each in the conference finals, each two wins away from giving us what we’ve seen coming since June 12th of last year, when Golden State finished off Cleveland in five games.
What’s really there, however, is a different story. The Warriors, having stolen home-court from the Houston Rockets in Game 1, gave it back at the most inopportune time, losing Game 4 in Oakland and falling back into a best-of-3 with the Rockets, with two of the three on the road.
Houston really is back from the brink. They were down 2-1 in the series and down 10 entering the fourth quarter of Game 4, only to outscore Golden State by 13 in the fourth, allowing only 12 points in their most important 12 minutes of the season, even ending the game with an earned defensive stop.
And the Cavaliers, after another lackluster effort in Boston in Game 5, now face elimination and in order to advance will have to hand the Celtics their first home loss of this postseason in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Those who were eager to see LeBron James hijack the TD Garden in a pivotal game were left disappointed, as James and Co. managed just 83 points, losing by 13. The Cavaliers shot poorly from everywhere–42% from the field, 9-34 3 pt. FG, 12-19 FT–and had 17 assists and 15 turnovers. The 13 point loss should have been worse, if it weren’t for the Celtics shooting just 36% from the field.
All of a sudden, both Golden State and LeBron James will have to reach into their hats and pull out a fluffy white rabbit to give fans the matchup that was supposed to be inevitable for almost an entire year.
But as daunting as it sounds, both teams have seen worse and survived, so for the Celtics and Rockets, dethroning their respective conference champions will take something extra.
These Warriors faced a 3-1 series deficit to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference Finals, only to come storming back and beat the Thunder in Game 7.
In that same season, LeBron James and the Cavaliers were down 3-1 in the NBA Finals to Golden State and came back to win, stealing Games 5 (thanks to a Draymond Green suspension) and 7 (thanks to a Kyrie Irving three) in Oakland.
And back in 2012, James and the Miami Heat faced a 3-2 series deficit in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics. In that instance, Game 6 was in Boston and LeBron willed Miami to victory with 46 points in one of his most memorable performances. The Heat would win Game 7 in Miami.
Elimination games are where championship pedigree is most relevant. Teams like Cleveland and Golden State will be at their best in two scenarios—when facing elimination and when performing it.
How much do the Celtics trust their home-court advantage?
Are they sure enough that LeBron James won’t be too big of an obstacle to overcome in a Game 7, even at home? How much can his carefully cultivated reputation precede him?
And in the Western Conference Finals, who needs Game 5 more?
Is Game 6 in Oakland a foregone conclusion for Golden State? Or has one win (and one dunk) broken the levee?
If we are headed to an inevitable conclusion, I can’t think of a better way to get there.