Kevin Durant and the Warriors cruised past New Orleans, 113-104, to advance to a Western Conference finals showdown with Houston, which eliminated Utah, 112-102. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
The Houston Rockets closed out the Utah Jazz in Game 5 to advance to a collision with the Golden State Warriors, who eliminated the New Orleans Pelicans in Game 5, in the Western Conference finals starting Monday night in Houston. For Wednesday night’s Game 5 between the Celtics and Sixers, click here.
• Chris Paul is finally headed to the Western Conference finals after taking over the fourth quarter.
• Donovan Mitchell’s X-rays were negative. He will get more tests in Salt Lake City.
• Draymond Green had already had an eventful game — before the first quarter in Oakland was done.
• Draymond Green had already had an eventful game — before the first quarter in Oakland was done.
OAKLAND, Calif. –
The past six months have been a prelude for the next two weeks.
Over the course of 82 games and the first two rounds of this year’s playoffs, the entire basketball world anticipated a collision course between the league’s two most dominant forces: the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets.
After the Warriors and Rockets dispatched the New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz, respectively, Tuesday night, the time for that showdown has finally arrived.
The defending champion Warriors, who cruised to 58 wins this season without breaking a sweat, have made three straight NBA Finals appearances, winning twice. With four of the best 15 or so players in the league, not to mention a roster full of experienced postseason performers, the Warriors spent the regular season acting like they knew they could turn it on — and then did precisely that in five-game series wins over the San Antonio Spurs and Pelicans.
The Rockets, winners of a league-best 65 games — which, importantly, gives them home-court advantage in this matchup — will try to end the Warriors’ Finals streak on the back of presumptive league MVP James Harden. At the close of last year’s Finals, Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey was famously quoted as saying he’d have to “up our risk profile” if his team was to compete with Golden State.
Morey then swung a trade for future Hall of Famer Chris Paul, added versatile veteran defenders P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, and watched center Clint Capela continue to swiftly develop into the kind of long, lean, switchable defending machine that seems built to go up against the Warriors’ offensive attack. It was a formula built to stop Golden State, but one that also took care of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Jazz in five games each.
These are the two best offenses in the NBA, and two of the best in league history. There is star power on both sides, and playoff history and animus to go with it.
This series has everything. And it begins Monday night in Houston.
“We know they are a great team,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said. “We know they are ready, and we’ll be ready for them.”
Everyone — the Warriors, the Rockets, the media, the fans — has been ready for this since opening night, when the Rockets came here to Oracle Arena and beat the Warriors even with Paul playing through an injury that kept him out of the team’s next 14 games. That set Houston on a path to the NBA’s best record, as the Rockets remained neck-and-neck with the Warriors until after the all-star break, when injuries hampered Golden State, and Houston kept rolling.
Along the way came two more meetings between these teams in January, with Golden State winning the first and Houston winning the second. After the third and final meeting, Capela told ESPN what the Rockets were thinking.
“We’re confident because we know if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to beat them,” he said. “I think that if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do on defense — all the switches, the weak side — and keep playing our offense by keeping that mentality all game long, we have the weapons to beat them.
“We are better than them.”
Those comments have sat in the minds of the Warriors for five months. Draymond Green wasn’t shy when asked about the Rockets on Tuesday night.
“What did somebody say after? What did he say? What’d he say? Yeah, you’ve got to play the game now,” Green said with a laugh.
“That’s all fine and dandy in January. But now, you know, they got us. We got them. Got to go out and play.
“We’ll see who’s better.”
There has been no team better built to credibly challenge these Warriors since Kevin Durant signed with them in July 2016. It starts with 48 minutes of Hall of Fame-level point guard play from Harden and Paul. Throw in long perimeter defenders such as Mbah a Moute, Tucker and Trevor Ariza to defend Durant — not to mention bomb away from three-point range the other end. There are scorers such as Eric Gordon and Gerald Green off the bench, plus an energy big in Nene behind Capela — who has grown by leaps and bounds as the season has progressed.
Even with all that in mind, Houston still has to beat the Warriors four times in a seven-game series, something no other team has done since Durant’s arrival in the Bay. The Warriors haven’t even lost four playoff games total since he showed up; after Tuesday’s win, Golden State is 24-3 in playoff games with Durant, and 59-17 over the past four postseasons since Kerr became head coach.
Only once in those three-plus seasons have the Warriors lost a playoff series — and it took the greatest player of his generation, LeBron James, leading his team back from a three-games-to-one deficit in the NBA Finals, aided by a Draymond Green suspension. While Golden State will have to start on the road in a playoff series for the first time during the Kerr era, they are more than confident about going into Houston and winning at least one of the first two games.
Taking down the defending champions is a daunting task. But that Houston is even given a credible chance of doing so is an acknowledgment of how great the Rockets are, and how much fun this series could be.
There’s a reason it has been billed as the de facto NBA Finals since these teams met for a third time in January.
Five months later, this clash of titans has finally arrived. And with five days before Game 1, the anticipation will only grow — as will the opportunities for both sides to get their licks in.
“We won two championships in three years,” Green said. “We don’t have to run around talking about how bad we want to play somebody. We want to win another championship, and don’t matter who is in the way of that. If you in the way of that, then you happen to be in the way.
“We’re not about to run around like, ‘Yeah, we want to play them in the conference finals.’ For what? It don’t matter to us who we play.
“However, we got them. Now? Let’s get it.”
It’s all we’ve been asking for.
It’s all but over here in Oakland.
Golden State enters the fourth quarter with a 95-75 lead over New Orleans and stands just 12 minutes away from the showdown with Houston the entire basketball world has spent the past six months waiting for.
Stephen Curry (26 points), Klay Thompson (23) and Kevin Durant (24) have nearly combined to score as many points (73) as the entire Pelicans team (75). And they’ve done so while shooting 29 for 44 from the floor, including 6 for 15 from three.
Anthony Davis (26 points and 19 rebounds) and Jrue Holiday (19 points, eight rebounds and eight assists) have fought admirably. But at the end of the day, the Warriors simply have too much firepower.
And assuming nothing crazy happens in the next 12 minutes, they’ll get the series victory they were expected to.
So, remember that 10-0 run to start the third quarter for the Warriors?
Yeah, about that …
It’s now 25-4.
And Stephen Curry has gone off for 11 points in the quarter. And he, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson have scored all 25 points.
Yes, I’d say the Warriors are ready to get to the Rockets, and the Western Conference finals.
Warm up the bus.
If the first two minutes of the third quarter are any indication, the Warriors want this series over with.
A 10-0 run powered entirely by Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry has allowed the Warriors to blow open this game, taking a 69-56 lead.
Durant has 22 points, Thompson 21 and Curry 15 – the only three players for the Warriors to be in double-figures currently. But when three of the best scorers in the league all are on one team, that’s all it needs to take a run.
The Pelicans are doing their best to get in the way of all of the talk about the impending Western Conference finals showdown between the Warriors and Rockets.
Behind outstanding first halves from both Anthony Davis (18 points and 10 rebounds) and Jrue Holiday (14 points, six rebounds and six assists), the Pelicans are within striking distance of the Warriors, though Golden State still leads 59-56. The problem for the Pelicans, as it has been throughout this series, is they just don’t have a lot of other options to turn to.
Nikola Mirotic has again struggled, going just 2 for 6 for six points in the first half. Rajon Rondo has seven points and six assists, but is 3 for 7 from the field. Meanwhile, New Orleans already has 10 turnovers that have turned into 17 points for Golden State – a killer against a team that plays as quickly as the Warriors do.
After a hot start, Klay Thompson has cooled down slightly – although he still leads all scorers with 19 points. Kevin Durant has 16 on 6-for-10 shooting, and Stephen Curry has 13 and five assists while going 6 for 9 from the floor.
Golden State should win this game. And, frankly, it needs to, in order to give Curry as much time to rest and round back into form as possible. It will be a surprise if the Warriors can’t close this out in the second half.
That said, if Davis and Holiday keep playing this well, New Orleans will at least have a shot.
This week’s Monday Morning Post Up featured an intriguing article from a friend, Bleacher Report’s Tom Haberstroh, about whether Stephen Curry will actually look right in his return from a sprained MCL in these playoffs.
After Curry had a stellar performance in his return in Game 2 (he had 28 points on 8-for-15 shooting overall, including 5 for 10 from three, to go with seven assists), it’s been a mixed bag.
Curry went 6 for 19 and scored 19 points in Golden State’s loss in Game 3 in New Orleans, then went 8 for 17 (including 4 for 9 from three) in scoring 23 points in the Pelicans’ Game 4 victory.
In the first half of Game 5, he’s continued to make strides forward.
Curry has 13 points and five assists – while going 6 for 9 from the field – as Golden State has a 59-56 halftime lead. There’s obviously plenty of rust to shake off from five-and-a-half weeks on the sidelines. But if Curry is healthy for the assumed start of the Western Conference finals Monday in Houston, the Warriors will still be favorites to win and advance to a fourth straight NBA Finals.
The Pelicans already have their hands full trying to chase down the Warriors in Game 5 on the road to extend this series by another game.
Doing so with foul trouble for their two best players will be even harder.
Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis are both playing with two fouls midway through the second quarter – the only players on either team with more than one foul each so far. Both have been outstanding for the Pelicans – Holiday has 12 points, four rebounds and four assists while Davis has nine points and eight rebounds – as New Orleans trails by nine.
With both of them cooking, New Orleans has a chance. But that only will last as long as they both can stay on the court. Foul trouble could derail that.
Draymond Green has already had an eventful game – and there are still a few minutes left in the first quarter.
Green, who has had multiple dust-ups with Rajon Rondo during the series, actually played the role of peacemaker after Kevin Durant and Nikola Mirotic got into it after Mirotic fouled Durant while he was taking a jumper.
Nikola Mirotic steps into Kevin Durant's landing space. pic.twitter.com/kAgLEKQ26S— RealGM (@RealGM) May 9, 2018
Then Green was up to his usual tricks when, as Rondo was conferring with Pelicans assistant Darren Erman, he stuck his head into the huddle – something neither Rondo nor Erman noticed until an official pulled Green away.
Draymond Green in the Pelicans' huddle. pic.twitter.com/XSnZy5eTjA— RealGM (@RealGM) May 9, 2018
Making that second moment even funnier was that Erman was a former assistant with the Warriors. So not only does Green have history with Rondo, but with Erman, as well.
After seeing the Rockets advance to the Western Conference finals earlier Tuesday, it appears the Warriors are determined to join them there.
Klay Thompson already has 14 points midway through the first quarter as the Warriors have taken a 23-16 lead over the Pelicans. Thompson already has nine shots – hitting six, including two threes – to help the Warriors get out to their early lead.
Golden State has also already drawn a foul on four of New Orleans’ five starters – something that could become a factor later in the game.
The Jazz announced after losing Game 5 of their Western Conference semifinal to the Rockets that Donovan Mitchell has left foot soreness. X-rays on his foot taken during the game were negative, and the team said Mitchell will have further tests when he returns to Salt Lake City.
It was encouraging news, given how bad the injury initially looked, and takes some of the edge off what was a disappointing end to both Mitchell and Utah’s season. Still, the Jazz have plenty to be encouraged about after a terrific season that saw them get back to the same place they were a year ago despite losing all-star forward Gordon Hayward in free agency last summer.
The emergence of Mitchell quickly made the loss of Hayward fade from people’s minds. For more on Mitchell, read my feature on the workout last May that convinced the Jazz they had to do whatever they could to land him in last year’s NBA Draft.
Chris Paul has been dogged by the narrative that he hasn’t made to the conference finals throughout his illustrious career.
It appeared he decided in the fourth quarter of Game 5 of Jazz-Rockets that he was going to make sure Houston made it that far all on his own.
Paul finished with 41 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists for Houston, including scoring or assisting on Houston’s final 18 points in the fourth quarter – scoring 15 of them and hitting P.J. Tucker for a three for the rest. It was a remarkable sequence, as Paul wound up scoring 20 of Houston’s 37 fourth quarter points (and assisting on two threes) as the Rockets overcame a three-point deficit after three quarters to pull away and take down the pesky Jazz to get to the Western Conference finals.
According to @EliasSports, Chris Paul's performance tonight is just the 2nd 40-10 game in a series-clincher in NBA playoff history.
The only other guy to do it had a pretty decent career pic.twitter.com/9gTCpLzHat— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 9, 2018
Houston will now wait to see if the Golden State Warriors can beat the New Orleans Pelicans in Game 5 of their series – which would set up the showdown everyone has been waiting all season for: Rockets-Warriors in the Western Conference finals. If Golden State wins tonight, that series will begin Monday in Houston, with Game 2 being Wednesday and Game 3 being back in Oakland on Sunday.
The entire Western Conference finals will be on TNT.
Donovan Mitchell’s incredible third quarter – one that saw him score 22 points on 8-for-11 shooting – dragged the Jazz back into this game.
Then, unfortunately, a false step appeared to end his night.
As Mitchell was trying to go around James Harden early in the fourth quarter, he went down hard, and needed assistance going back to Utah’s locker room, favoring his left leg.
TNT’s cameras later caught Mitchell walking in the hallway outside the visiting locker room without his left shoe on, but with no additional assistance – a positive development given how ugly Mitchell’s injury initially looked like it could be.
That said, the Jazz are going to have a very difficult time managing to win this game without their leading scorer. A tough break in a series that has had one after another for Utah from an injury standpoint.
There has been plenty of talk, in the wake of Steve Kerr saying he wasn’t a fan of the nickname “Hamptons Five,” about what the name of Golden State’s devastating smallball lineup should be.
Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry, when asked about it before Game 5 of Warriors-Pelicans here in Oakland, had his own idea for what it could be called.
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry on the Hampton 5 lineup: “You can call them any kind of five. They’re really good. You can call them the Jackson 5.”— Logan Murdock (@loganmmurdock) May 9, 2018
Gentry’s ultimate point, however, was the correct one. The Warriors optimal lineup is the best in the NBA – and one of the best in the history of the league – for a reason. Even for a team with as much offensive firepower as the Pelicans, it’s nearly impossible to keep up.
With Ricky Rubio and Dante Exum already sidelined because of injuries, the last thing the Jazz could afford was a perimeter player getting into foul trouble in Game 5.
Unfortunately for them, that’s exactly what has happened.
Joe Ingles picked up a fourth foul early in the third quarter, sending him to the bench in favor of Alec Burks. While Burks is another scoring option for the Jazz, as noted below, Ingles is a far better shooter and better defensive player. Given who Utah is up against, they need both of those things in spades.
Utah has only managed one basket so far in the opening minutes of the second half, getting wide open looks for Burks in the lane and Donovan Mitchell from three and missing both. Especially with Ingles on the bench, the Jazz need to take advantage of every opportunity they get.
Jazz guard Alec Burks has never been the same since Paul Pierce undercut him on a drive to the hoop, while Pierce was playing for the Clippers in December 2015, a play that saw Burks break his leg.
But Burks, in the absence of Ricky Rubio this series, has given the Jazz a real lift off the bench – and is helping them stay in Game 5.
Burks has 12 points in 12 minutes in the first half for Utah, and in a series where Donovan Mitchell has struggled offensively and Utah is without Rubio’s shot creation, Burks has been a welcome lift off the bench for the Jazz.
They’ll need a lot more of that in the second half to get this series back to Salt Lake City Thursday night.
Talk about a brutal final minute of the first half of Game 5 for the Jazz.
With the score tied with 90 seconds to go in the half, Utah allowed Houston to close with an 11-3 run – including three three-pointers by Chris Paul (two) and P.J. Tucker in the final minute – to allow the Rockets to go into halftime with a 54-46 lead.
That’s exactly what a team like the Jazz, that’s trying to keep up with the higher-octane Rockets, can’t let happen.
Paul has 15 points and six assists to lead Houston, while Tucker has 10 points on perfect 4-for-4 shooting – including the final shot of the half for the Rockets. James Harden has nine points, but on just 3-for-9 shooting.
Alec Burks leads Utah with 12 points off the bench, while Rudy Gobert has eight points, five rebounds and two blocks and Joe Ingles has eight points, three rebounds and three assists.
Star rookie Donovan Mitchell continues to struggle against the Rockets and is now 1 for 5 from the field for two points in the first half. Through four and a half games, Mitchell is now 28 for 88 overall and 7 for 31 from three-point range and has clearly struggled with Clint Capela’s length inside.
The Jazz held the Rockets to 21 points in the first quarter. That was a good thing.
The Rockets held the Jazz to 16 points in the first quarter. That was a very bad thing.
For Utah to stay in this series, it needs to find a way to keep up with Houston offensively. Being able to limit the Rockets to 21 points in a quarter is great – but doesn’t matter if the Jazz can’t generate offense at all themselves.
James Harden has seven points to lead Houston, while Joe Ingles has five points and three assists to lead Utah.
tIf the Utah Jazz are going to force their Western Conference semifinal series back to Salt Lake City for Game 6, they’re going to have to do it without both Ricky Rubio and Dante Exum.
The two international point guards – Rubio is from Spain, while Exum is from Australia – will miss Game 5 Tuesday night with hamstring strains. Rubio has missed the entire series after getting hurt during Game 6 of Utah’s first round victory over Oklahoma City, while Exum injured his in the second half of Game 4 Sunday night.
Jae Crowder seems likely to start for the Jazz again, but the lack of Rubio and Exum leaves Utah without two players that can both attack the rim offensively and effectively guard defensively. That puts even more of a burden on rookie Donovan Mitchell, who has struggled this series to contend with everything Houston’s defense has thrown at him.
Utah already managed to win in Houston once. It is going to be a monumental challenge for the Jazz to do it a second time.
- Utah Jazz at Houston Rockets (HOU leads 3-1), 8 p.m., TNT
- New Orleans Pelicans at Golden State Warriors (GSW leads 3-1), 10:30 p.m., TNT
Hop into the comments section below to chat with The Post’s Tim Bontemps about all of your NBA questions.
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