HOUSTON — How fitting: If the Warriors are going to hold up their end of their bargain with the Cavaliers, they will need to duplicate LeBron James’s latest rare feat.
For the past four seasons, Golden State and Cleveland have dominated headlines, traded titles, and owned their respective conferences, becoming the first pair of teams to meet in the NBA Finals for three consecutive years. On Sunday, James and the Cavaliers advanced to the Finals with a grinding 87-79 Game 7 win over the Celtics in Boston. Now, the Warriors must score their own Game 7 victory on the road Monday to keep their championship hopes alive.
There was good reason to believe that the Cavaliers would be able to buck Game 7 history and advance to the Finals: James, who is headed to his eighth straight Finals, held a massive experience advantage over the Celtics, who were heavily reliant upon young players due to injuries to stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
Similarly, the Warriors entered the West finals as favorites given their championship pedigree, they have two blowout victories in this series against the Rockets, and star Chris Paul will be limited or out due to a hamstring injury he suffered in Game 5. Given those factors, Golden State is viewed by oddsmakers as the favorite entering Monday.
While circumstances made it hard to pick against the Cavaliers or the Warriors, Game 7 road wins at this stage of the playoffs have been few and far between over the years. In fact, the Cavaliers became the first team to win a road Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals since the 2005 Pistons. What’s more, the 1982 Sixers are the only other team during the three-point era to win a Game 7 in the East finals on the road.
Meanwhile, the Warriors are aiming to become the first team to win a road Game 7 in the Western Conference finals since the 2002 Lakers defeated the Kings in overtime. NBA historians will remember that LA’s victory over Sacramento was set up by a Game 6 that remains a favorite among conspiracy theorists.
That West finals win, which led to a third consecutive title for Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, marked the only time during the three-point era that the road team has won Game 7 of the West finals. All told, home teams in the West finals are 7-2 in the shot-clock era (since 1954-55) and 5-1 during the three-point era ('79-80).
“We do have home court and there is a favorability of that,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “It might not be as high as most people want because we're playing against the best team in the league. But there is a little bit of an advantage [that] comes on the enthusiasm. When you get on rolls, you can hear the crowd, you can feel the energy. You can do all that.”
Recent Game 7 history doesn’t offer much guidance for the Rockets or the Warriors. Since James Harden’s arrival in Houston, the Rockets have only played in one Game 7: a second-round victory over the Clippers in 2015 that sent them on to the West finals.
Golden State’s track record in Game 7s is, well, mixed. Under coach Steve Kerr, the Warriors are 1-1 in Game 7s, beating the Thunder in the 2016 West finals and losing to the Cavaliers in the 2016 Finals. Both of those games were played at home in Oracle Arena. Remarkably, the Warriors haven’t won a Game 7 on the road in any playoff series since 1948, when the franchise was still located in Philadelphia and the NBA still hadn’t been officially formed.
D’Antoni offered no clarity on Paul’s condition Sunday, telling reporters that the nine-time All-Star could be a game-time decision with a strained right hamstring. Paul traveled with the Rockets to Oakland for Game 6, but D’Antoni said that Paul hasn’t yet worked out since sustaining the injury.
“I don't think he's tested it at all,” D’Antoni said. “He's just getting treatment and trying to be sure it calms down and everything. The doctors and trainers are working on it 24 hours a day almost. They will re-evaluate it again [Monday] morning. If I get the nod from the trainers, Chris and the doctors, he'll be ready to go.”
Although the Warriors enter with momentum thanks to Klay Thompson’s breakthrough in a blowout Game 6 win, they face a major injury absence of their own in Game 7. Andre Iguodala, the 2015 Finals MVP, opened the West finals as a starter before sustaining a bone bruise in his knee that will force him to miss his fourth straight game.
"It's gone on this long, and he's had a lot of pain," Kerr said. "He's doing everything he can to be out on the floor. He’s getting treatment several times a day and doing all the right things. It just hasn't responded yet.”
Kerr, who said he hadn’t “given one bit of thought” to his team’s crushing Game 7 loss in the 2016 Finals in preparation for Monday, downplayed the importance of venue. Golden State lost its only road game in Houston during the regular season and is 1-2 at the Toyota Center during this series.
“It's just a road game for us,” Kerr said. “It's a home game for them. It's the same advantage or disadvantage as any other game, to be honest with you. We know we have a veteran team. We have guys who have been through almost everything, and we've got a lot of confidence.”
The Rockets, to their credit, have ceded nothing in this series. They played brilliantly in the first half of their Game 6 loss, scoring 39 points in the first quarter, and they remained convincingly upbeat despite Paul’s untimely injury. As they attempt to spoil Warriors/Cavaliers IV, the Rockets can look back to their franchise’s glory days for Game 7 confidence-boosting. Houston’s 1994 and 1995 title runs with Hakeem Olajuwon included three Game 7 wins, including a home victory over Patrick Ewing’s Knicks in the 1994 Finals.
“If you asked us when we were in the Bahamas this summer if we could have a Western Conference Finals Game 7 against the Warriors to go to the Finals,” Harden said. “We would take that. There's no pressure. It's an opportunity that we all are excited to be a part of: Game 7 at our house. We've worked the entire regular season to get home-court advantage.”
Houston’s MVP candidate was certain that the Toyota Center crowd’s enthusiasm would remain high despite Golden State’s overwhelming second-half comeback in Game 6.
“I don't need to say anything [to the crowd],” Harden said on Saturday. “They're going to bring it. We've got a whole city behind us, and they're as loyal as they come. Game 7 in H-Town: Let's get it.”