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Greg Cote: Why the Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers are likely to force Game 7s in conference finals

UPDATED: Fri., May 18, 2018, 4:05 p.m.

Narratives in a best-of-seven playoff series tend to pivot and change faster than a liar’s recollection. It only takes one game, one result, to flip the script, as we are seeing in the NBA’s Western Conference finals.

After Golden State’s big Game 1 second half and comfy win it was “Sorry, Houston. Order restored.” The Warriors winning without much from Steph Curry and the Rockets losing at home despite 41 from James Harden seemed one of those proverbial “statement” games (with Kevin Durant’s 37 doing most of the talking.

Game 2? Get me rewrite! Rockets in control front to back in a 22-point rout in which Harden shot 3 for 15 on 3s and it hardly mattered. This was the Houston that earned the No. 1 seed.

Thank you, Rockets, for restoring tension to the proceedings and the idea the series could be a long one.

We have the same impression in the East, despite Boston’s declaration of a 2-0 series lead. A 13-point Cleveland loss despite LeBron James’ 42 Game 2 points and triple-double gut-punched Cavaliers fans, and yet, for me, the series got interesting. With James’ historic talent and indefatigable will and the next two games being played in Cleveland, anybody out there writing off the Cavs? Didn’t think so.

(And, by the way: How discouraging must it be for the rest of the East to see Boston doing what it is doing while missing its two best players in injured Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward?)

Here’s what I see happening. I see something last seen in the NBA in 1979:

Both conference finals being decided by Game 7s. Houston’s Game 2 gave it a chance to happen. James’ hallmark ability to rise up and take over when he is doubted also gives it a chance to happen.

As a hopeless sports historian with a bent for oddball facts I could not recall two NBA conference finals both going the full seven games at the same time. With good reason, it turns out. It was 1979 when the league last saw two 4-3 conference finals. The trivia answer: Gus Williams’ Seattle SuperSonics edging Phoenix on a huge Game 7 from Jack Sikma, and Elvin Hayes’ Washington Bullets rallying from 3-1 down to survive San Antonio.

In fact, that is the only time in the previous 50 NBA playoffs that both conference finals went the distance.

The magic of Game 7s in sports is not just that they are about the only time that “must win” is literally true.

It is that they are so rare, therefore so special. Do they not always feel like a gift? Like something you’ll watch even if your interest is otherwise casual?

In the NBA only 24 of the past 100 conference finals since 1968 have gone to Game 7s, including only three of the past 24 since 2006.

In the NHL it’s only 23 of the past 100 across the same timeline, and only twice in the past 50 years (2000 and 2015) have both conference finals gone the distance the same season.

In baseball it’s 26 of the past 100 league championship series going the distance, but only four times in 50 years have both series gone the max, and not since 2004.

The real anomaly, the freak of mathematical chance, is that the NBA hasn’t rolled double 7s in the conference finals in just less than 40 years. Rick Barry was still playing. Jimmy Carter was president. I, now a new grandfather, was still in college.

But there are four reasons it has a big chance to happen again now.

Because Golden State is so good that the two-time league MVP Curry isn’t even the best player on his team.

Because Harden-led Houston might be even better.

Because Boston has reminded us why it earned and deserves home-court advantage.

Because LeBron.

So, a small request, please: Two Game 7s. And make them worth the wait.


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