Do The Rockets & Hawks Have Any Hope?

The Houston Rockets are putting up noble fights and coming up just short on the road to the best team in the NBA. The Atlanta Hawks are playing poorly, getting hurt and losing big at home to a team playing without its second-best player. But what they have in common is more notable than what separate them, and it’s that finding a reason that either will come back from their 0-2 deficits to make either NBA conference finals compelling is difficult indeed.

Let’s start with the Houston-Golden State series, which has at least produced good basketball games, even if it’s the Warriors who consistently make plays to win. Game 2 was another great battle between James Harden and Steph Curry. Harden drilled 38 points, while Curry poured in 33 and each shot 13-for-21 from the field. But Harden’s turnover on the game’s final possession is what’s remembered in the 99-98 Golden State win.

The focus is on the turnover itself, where Harden put the ball on the floor in literally the closing seconds and Curry got his hands in there and prevented a shot from ever getting off. But I think the bigger mistake Harden made came just seconds earlier when he briefly passed the pass to Dwight Howard at the top before receiving it back.

At the moment of the pass, Harden had space to hit a step-back jumper. I was fully expecting him to take the shot and shocked when he gave up the basketball. Just let it fly, it was a clean look.

The bigger area of discouragement for the Rockets is that I’m not sure what more they’re supposed to do. They got a big game from Dwight Howard, who quite literally rebounded from his tweaked knee in Game 1—as in 17 rebounds, to go along with 19 points. They got the great night from Harden. And they still lost.

It’s not shocking—in fact, with the Warriors coming off a 67-15 regular season, easily the best in the NBA, it’s expected—but the Rockets seem to running into a reef of reality, which says they’re simply not good enough to win this series without significant help from Golden State. And with the Warrior big men, Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green, each making solid contributions, that help isn’t forthcoming.

Golden State has perhaps the best home crowd in the NBA and it’s impossible to fathom them losing a Game 7, given the general historic dominance home teams show in NBA seventh games. This would mean Houston has to win four straight to win the series.

I’m going to continue watching, because the quality of basketball is so good, but even if the Rockets hold serve at home this weekend—which is very possible—I don’t consider this series to be really in play until they can also steal Game 5 on the road.

Now let’s go on to Atlanta, which lost 94-82 to Cleveland last night in a game where the Hawks looked absolutely atrocious. Kyle Korver, a pure three-point shooter, is having a hard time getting his shot and Korver—presumably with the blessing of head coach Mike Budenholzer—decided it would be a good idea to start forcing up jumpers and putting the ball on the floor, where he’s not comfortable. The gambit predictably failed.

The Korver fiasco was just part of Atlanta, who has excelled all season by playing Spurs-type basketball where they move it around and rely on everyone, trying to play hero ball in the halfcourt offense. They didn’t rebound and with small forward DeMarre Carroll playing on an injured leg, the already seismic task of guarding LeBron James got even harder.

LeBron turned in his usual virtuoso performance, with 30 points/9 rebounds/11 assists. He was efficient, shooting 10-for-22 and his always-spectacular court vision produced easy baskets for teammates. Tristan Thompson, a favorite here at TheSportsNotebook grabbed 16 boards, five of them on the offensive end.

Budenholzer won Coach of the Year and Atlanta has been an admirable team all year. You wouldn’t have known that to watch Game 2. With the series going to Cleveland on Sunday night for two games, you have the distinct feeling that the brooms are coming out.

Game 3 action begins tonight in Houston (9 PM ET, ESPN) and continues tomorrow in Cleveland (8:30 PM ET, TNT).

The NBA playoffs, with the notable exception of the Clippers-Spurs series in the first round, have fizzled when it comes to entertainment. The conference finals are continuing that pattern. Right now, June 4, when the Finals begin, almost certainly with Golden State and Cleveland, can’t come too soon.