Tomase: Rockets or Warriors? Celtics fans should favor one Finals matchup over other

John Tomase
May 25, 2018 - 1:02 pm
James Harden

Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

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The Celtics reaching the Finals is by no means a foregone conclusion. LeBron James need only defend his home floor on Friday night to force a Game 7 in Boston, and bet against James in that one at your own peril.

However, the C's have been the better team overall in taking a 3-2 lead into Game 6. They've consistently produced easier shots, played better defense, and looked more cohesive. If you're wagering based solely on the first five games, the C's should be favored to split the next two.

And that brings us to the question that would've gotten you laughed off the air a month ago: Who's the better matchup in the Finals? Warriors or Rockets?

With the Celtics on the precipice, that topic is improbably fair game. So let's break it down.

The Rockets lead the series 3-2 after Thursday night's close victory at home, but it came at a steep cost. Point guard Chris Paul, a flat-out difference-maker all series, pulled up lame in the final 30 seconds with a hamstring strain. His availability for Game 6 and beyond is now very much in doubt.

With Paul on the floor, the Rockets are a handful. They boast the presumptive MVP in James Harden. Big man Clint Capela is a threat rolling to the rim. Eric Gordon and old friend Gerald Green are dangerous wing scorers with 3-point range. Veterans Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker do all the dirty work -- Ariza as a tireless defender, Tucker as a rugged Marcus Smart type.

The Warriors need no introduction. The defending champs are an offensive force, but the conference finals have proven they're no longer invincible. Steph Curry has battled injury for much of the year and didn't even make his playoff debut until Game 2 of the conference semis against New Orleans. He's not even making a third of his 3-pointers against the Rockets.

Former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala has missed the last two games after banging knees with Harden. The seemingly unstoppable Kevin Durant has faltered in crunch time of the last two losses. The Warriors aren't playing with any kind of rhythm, which is why they've been held under 100 points in each of the last two games, both losses. They failed to reach the century mark only 12 times in the regular season.

Put each team at full strength and I'd want no part of the Warriors, even though the Celtics have played remarkably well against them over the last three years under Brad Stevens despite fielding wildly different rosters. Two seasons ago, the C's nearly ended the Warriors' season-opening 23-game winning streak in double overtime, and they then succeeding in halting Golden State's bid for a perfect home record in April.

Last year, the clubs traded road blowouts, with the Celtics holding the Warriors to 86 points, one off their season low.

And this season, the Celtics claimed a four-point victory at home in the midst of their 16-game winning streak before the Warriors returned the favor in Oakland in a game that came down to the wire.

The Celtics have no answer for Durant, but they've defended Curry and Klay Thompson particularly well, limiting the former to 21.4 points a game and the latter to .299 3-point shooting. Their switching defense has always given the Warriors trouble on the perimeter.

Yahoo's Chris Mannix has gone so far as to suggest that Golden State is the better matchup, as he told Dale & Keefe on Thursday.

"Definitely Golden State," he said. "It sounds crazy because of the talent of the Warriors, but just the way their switching defense has given Golden State problems over the years, that gives the Celtics confidence. Look, the Celtics from the top down, they are lunatics. They think they can win this year. They are convinced they can win this year. I think that is a lot to ask."

Paul's injury makes Houston the more palatable matchup at this point, though. The Rockets like to isolate their two guards and let them create. Harden is a monster. But the Celtics split their two matchups this year and really should've won both after stealing the Marcus Smart double-charge game in Boston and then blowing a late lead in Houston.

Remove Paul from the mix and the Kyrie Irving-less Celtics are on much more equal footing. Houston only goes seven deep, just like the C's, and while the Celtics lack someone with Harden's star power, if they can defend the 3-point line and withstand Houston's aerial assault -- the Rockets averaged a staggering 42 3's a game -- they'll have a series on their hand.

So if you're a Celtics fan, root on the Rockets in Game 6 and hope the West's No. 1 seed can take care of business against the wounded Warriors before limping into the Finals.

A month ago it would've been insane to grade potential Finals matchups. Now it feels like the little team that could might actually make the thing interesting.

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