The 2017-18 NBA season began with a sparkling, dazzling display. After the amuse-bouche that was the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics rematching their Conference Finals showdown, the real treat of the evening began: The Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets.
The Warriors, of course, were the defending champions, and had retained all of their core pieces, while bringing in reinforcements. The Rockets, fresh off earning the third-seed in the West, had calmly added Chris Paul, one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, while shoring up their bench with much-needed defense.
It was, at the time, depicted as a clash of titans, featuring six of the league’s top players, two of its most innovative coaches, and the prohibitive favorites to meet up in seven month’s time.
And that’s exactly what happened.
The Rockets won that game in what amounts to an idyllic metaphor for the season. The atmosphere was both intense and ebullient, as the Warriors jumped out to a strong lead, only for Houston to climb back. In the end, the Rockets beat both the odds and the Warriors, and used a 34-20 fourth quarter to secure a one-point victory.
If you had a time lapse of the game, and the season, they would look rather similar. No, the Rockets didn’t wait until the end of the season to take the lead in the standings, but they spent the ‘17-18 campaign learning, adapting, and ultimately thriving.
Houston withstood injuries to Paul and prohibitive MVP favorite James Harden, and, like the suit of the Black Panther, managed to only grow stronger with each futile blow absorbed.
Just as they surprised the NBA world by snagging that win back on October 17, they flipped the odds on their head and cruised to the top seed in the West - the first time in the Steve Kerr era that Golden State ceded home court advantage to anyone.
While the Warriors drifted into the second seed, they were hardly a disappointment, except when viewed through the lens of their of their historically great relativity. Second in the West, and third in the league may not appear inadequate, especially given the wave of injuries sustained and overcome, but it was something of a wake-up call for the fanbase. The Warriors are no longer invincible; an adversary was scaling their mountain, and had nearly made it to the top.
Houston finished a whopping seven games ahead of Golden State in the standings, but all year the teams jockeyed for positioning in the more important metrics. The Warriors edged the Rockets by the slimmest of margins for the top offense in the league, while Houston surprisingly concocted a better defensive season, finishing sixth to Golden State’s ninth. Put it all together, and the two teams emphatically hovered above the rest of the league. Their net ratings of 8.5 for Houston, and 8.0 for Golden State dwarfed every team except Toronto, and that proved to be a healthy dose of smoke and mirrors.
They pulled on the ends of the tug-o-war rope all year long, and it was clear to everyone watching that the rope only needed two ends; they were each other’s only competition.
It seemed all but guaranteed on opening night, that these two teams would meet for a meaningful seven game series, with a spot in the NBA Finals on the line. It seemed that way a month into the season, and two months into the season, and when Curry and Harden joked around at All-Star practice, teammates for one fleeting moment.
It seemed inevitable as the playoffs drew near, and when the two teams dominated their first round opponents.
Now, it is no longer inevitable. The inexorable matchup has bloomed before our eyes, and now we get to pick the fruit that it bears.
The series we all knew would one day arrive is finally here. And while we all adore the unpredictable spontaneity of sports, somehow the Conference Finals are even better because we all saw it coming from so far away.