NBA playoffs: The Warriors are ready to get to the Rockets, and the Western Conference finals


NBA playoffs: The Warriors are ready to get to the Rockets, and the Western Conference finals

The Houston Rockets closed out the Utah Jazz in Game 5. Can the Golden State Warriors do the same against New Orleans Pelicans? We will have live analysis throughout both games, and join the discussion in the comments. Catch up on yesterday’s results here.

Chris Paul is finally headed to the Western Conference finalsafter 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.

OAKLAND, Calif. – The past six months have been a prelude for the next two weeks.

As this NBA season has played out, both over the course of 82 games and over the first two rounds of this year’s playoffs, the entire basketball world has anticipated a collision course between the two dominant forces in the sport today: the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets. And, after the Warriors and Rockets dispatched with the New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz Tuesday night, respectively, the time for that showdown has finally arrived.

On one side stand the defending champion Warriors, who cruised to 58 wins this season without breaking a sweat. With four of the best 15 or so players in the NBA at their disposal, not to mention a roster full of experienced postseason performers, the Warriors spent their first 82 games acting like they knew they could turn it on – and then did precisely that in five-game series wins over the Spurs and Pelicans.

On the other stand the league-leading Rockets, winners of 65 games – which, importantly, allowed them to claim home court in this matchup – and featuring the presumptive league MVP in James Harden. At the close of last year’s NBA Finals, Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey was famously quoted as saying he’d have to “up his risk profile” if his team was to compete with Golden State.

Morey then swung a trade for Chris Paul, added versatile veteran defenders like P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute and saw center Clint Capela continue to swiftly develop into the kind of long, lean, switchable defending machine that seems built to go up against Golden State’s nuclear offensive attack. It was a formula built to stop Golden State, but one that also took care of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz in five-games.

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 between them to go with it.

This series has everything. And it begins Monday night in Houston.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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