Keith Strudler: Houston's Big Comeback
The Houston Rockets did something completely unexpected last night against the Golden State Warriors. Down two games to one in a best-of-seven Western Conference Finals series, and trailing by 10 going into the fourth quarter, the Rockets managed an improbable comeback win to tie the series as they head back to Houston for Game Five. Not to get into the weeds, but this changes the entire complexion of the series, which, before 9 p.m. last night most people assumed would end soon and with certainty. That’s because the Warriors beat Houston by 41 in Game Three and made the Rockets look like a high school JV. So, now Golden State has gone from presumptive NBA Champions to a team that has to steal a game on the road to get to the Finals. Such is the nature of the NBA Playoffs, where momentum shifts as often as our White House staff.
There is a similar storyline in the Eastern Conference, where Boston’s 2-0 series lead turned quickly into a series tie after Cleveland won two straight at home. Meaning a very young Celtics squad now has to win two out of three over LeBron James and whomever else is on the court with him. Which also means that the presumptive LeBron James open bidding war may be on hold, as his Cleveland Cavaliers suddenly seem less undermanned than assumed only a few days ago.
This leaves us with four possible NBA Finals matchups – one of which would not involve either Golden State or Cleveland, the two teams that have met for the past two championships. This summer was going to be the rubber match, even as most people gave Golden State and their long list of all-stars the overwhelming edge. There is a single scenario by which neither team makes the title series, placing Houston against Boston, which, for NBA historians, would be a rematch of both the 1981 and 86 Championship Series, when Larry Bird was still one of the three best players on the globe. So, for all who have ignored the NBA season until now, you are officially caught up.
A friend of mine asked me today what I thought about last night’s game – especially since I grew up a somewhat obsessive Houston Rockets fan. Fairly removed from my youthful fandom, I said last night’s game could mean one of three things. One, it’s the turning point where Houston finally gets over the hump and wins a title after years of almost. Two, Golden State rebounds and wins the next two, making last night simply a forgotten moment in time, something that seemed way more important when it happened. And three, LeBron James realizes that with Golden State out of the way, he can actually win another title and continue his campaign for the greatest that ever was. These are three very different outcomes, which have very different trajectories – both in the next few weeks and the extended future of the sport. It could be the reason that one team stays together – really any of them – and another splits up. It could be the one and only chance for Houston superstar James Harden to win a title, which would define his career as a champion instead of simply an amazing player. And if you don’t think that matters to athletes, just ask Charles Barkley or Dan Marino. It could be the thing that keeps LeBron in Cleveland and its fan base from eternal sadness, like they were when he first left for Miami. As much as you may care about the storybook that is sports history, its chapters are written through moments like these – and like those that happened last night when Houston grasped victory from the jaws of certain defeat – defined loosely as Steph Curry and Kevin Durant.
That, in a nutshell, is the appeal of sports. It’s the storyline that not only has yet to be written – but also the endless possibilities of its arc. It’s the recognition that singular moments of remarkable athleticism can change far more than the outcome of a game. Perhaps that’s why we often think of athletes as heroes – even though that’s an improper use of the term. But, like heroes – at least the comic book kind – they can alter fate through super human feats in moments of crisis. Houston faced a crisis last night – just ask anyone in Southeast Texas who may have been up late last night. They were nearly down an insurmountable three games to one to a team that’s probably better than them. And 12 basketball minutes later, plus commercials, they may yet bring a title to Houston or keep Ohio’s favorite son at home. That’s quite a night. And quite a reason to hope for more of the unexpected.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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