Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
The 2018 NBA conference finals have been a blessing from the basketball gods.
The Eastern Conference version has been a brilliant chess match between LeBron James and Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. The Western Conference iteration has yielded monstrous scoring efforts from Kevin Durant, James Harden, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul.
Both series are knotted at 2-2, meaning we’re guaranteed at least four more displays of high-level hoops.
After laying out the remaining schedule, we’ll break down both matchups and predict what’s coming next.
2018 NBA Conference Finals Remaining Schedule
No. 2 Boston Celtics vs. No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers
Game 5—Wednesday, May 23: Cavaliers at Celtics, 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Game 6—Friday, May 25: Celtics at Cavaliers, 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
*Game 7—Sunday, May 27: Cavaliers at Celtics, 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
No. 1 Houston Rockets vs. No. 2 Golden State Warriors
Game 5—Thursday, May 24: Warriors at Rockets, 9 p.m. ET on TNT
Game 6—Saturday, May 26: Rockets at Warriors, 9 p.m. ET on TNT
*Game 7—Monday, May 28: Warriors at Rockets, 9 p.m. ET on TNT
Celtics vs. Cavaliers
Tony Dejak/Associated Press
If you subscribe to the theory that playoff series don’t start until a road team wins, the Celtics and Cavs are still waiting on the first tip.
It’s not just that each team has held serve twice, it’s been a different series depending on the locale. In Boston, the Celtics averaged 107.5 points to the Cavs’ 88.5. In Cleveland, it’s been Cavs 113.5 and the Celtics 94.
“It’s just tough playing on the road,” Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum said, per Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today. “Teams are more comfortable. They’ve got their crowd behind. They’re used to playing in this gym. It’s just tough going on the road and winning games.”
The Quicken Loans Arena rims treated J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver well. Cleveland’s sharpshooters combined to hit 12 triples on 63.2 percent shooting in Games 3 and 4 after totaling only three on 17.6 percent during the first two matchups.
Boston must hope Al Horford finds similarly favorable conditions back at TD Garden. The Shamrocks’ only healthy All-Star has struggled mightily since a 20-point (on 8-of-10 shooting), six-assist effort in the opener. His per-game marks since have plummeted to 12.3 points (on 40 percent) and three assists.
But Horford’s woes might have less to do with the venue than matchups. His slide coincided with Tristan Thompson’s promotion to the starting five and Larry Nance Jr.’s return to the rotation.
It’s usually incorrect to attach Horford’s value to the scoring column. But with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward both shelved by injuries, the Shamrocks need stability from their 31-year-old center.
The Celtics are deeper, more athletic and arguably more talented. They’ll also host two of the final three collisions.
But they don’t have James, who has already orchestrated a pair of 40-point outbursts. And as long as he gets even average play from his supporting cast, he should be headed to his eighth consecutive championship round.
Prediction: Cavs in seven
Warriors vs. Rockets
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After three routs in as many games, the Warriors-Rockets series finally delivered a doozy Wednesday night.
The final tally in Houston’s 95-92 victory might suggest the clubs traded haymakers for most of the night. That wasn’t exactly the case. In fact, the contest functioned more like a microcosm of this series—each quarter was decided by at least nine points, and two featured gaps of 16-plus points.
That’s not to say it lacked drama, though. The Dubs had two chances to tie the score in the final 12 seconds, but Klay Thompson misfired on a fadeaway with 2.2 seconds left, and after Chris Paul split a pair of free throws, Curry couldn’t get off a three-pointer in time (his attempt missed anyway).
There are two ways to process Game 4.
One is that a lot had to go wrong for the Warriors to lose.
They shot a dreadful 3-of-18 in the final frame—including a missed layup by Curry with 37.7 seconds left—which they lost 25-12. Curry, Durant and Klay Thompson shot a combined 23-of-63 (36.5 percent) and had more turnovers (six) than assists (five). Not to be overlooked, the Dubs were without Andre Iguodala, who missed the contest with a bruise on his left lower leg.
That Golden State still lost by a single-possession margin might indicate the scope of its talent advantage.
Of course, the other way to look at it is the Warriors gave new life to the Rockets, who had this season’s best record (65-17) and net efficiency (plus-8.5) and now have home-court advantage in what’s become a three-game series.
No matter how the next three games go, Houston has already pushed Golden State harder than anyone during the Hamptons Five era:
Anthony Slater @anthonyVslater
This will be the first time the Warriors have had a series stretch to at least six games since signing Kevin Durant. Steph Curry: “Now we have to fight and understand that this is a true playoff experience.”
This still feels like the Warriors’ series to lose, though.
Other than home court, it’s hard to find advantages for the Rockets. Golden State not only boasts superior star power, this group is also overloaded with postseason experience.
We’ll learn a lot when this series reconvenes Thursday night. But our guess is the Warriors use this as a wake-up call, seize control in Houston and close things out back in Oakland.
Prediction: Warriors in six