In a lot of ways, the 82-game NBA season pointed in one direction — to the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets meeting in the Western Conference finals.
Expectations were high, deservedly. They're owners of two of the top 31 offenses in the NBA shot-clock era. They're loaded with stars from Stephen Curry to Kevin Durant to James Harden to Chris Paul.
It was an inevitable collision that everyone wanted. But instead of a crash, there's been more of blaring, sad trombone. Fans want to see the NBA's best deliver nail-biting games. They want end-of-game heroics, game-winning shots and last-second defensive stands.
And so far, that's not happened.
In three games, the average margin of victory has been just north of 25 points. The closest game was the series opener, a 13-point win. And across the country, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics had beaten each other by nearly the same margin over the first three games of their series. (They finally played a game decided by single digits Monday, a 111-102 Cavaliers win.)
Is this bad basketball? Or is this just basketball now, an unintended consequence of teams hoisting long-range jumpers at historic rates?
"The threes have a lot to do with it," said Golden State coach Steve Kerr, whose team holds a 2-1 lead. "These days the game can get away from you quickly if you're giving up a lot of threes. Defense is always the difference. But what happens nowadays, defense often leads to a three-point barrage for most teams."
No team shot more threes this season than Houston, which set a league record with 3,470 attempts. Boston, Cleveland and Golden State are among the most accurate three-point-shooting teams.
"The three-pointer's such a huge part of the game now that [leads] could easily go from six to 16 or 17 in a matter of seconds in the game," Durant said. "So I wouldn't say …the games aren't good. It's just the fact that the style of play causes teams to pull away a little faster."
Durant's correct — of the 18 teams that have attempted the most three-point shots in a season, 13 set the mark in the last two seasons.
Three-point shooting has changed the NBA. The Rockets, owners of the NBA's most efficient offense this season, launched 3,046 more threes than the 1990-91 Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan's first championship team that also led the NBA in offensive efficiency.
Entering Monday, the average margin of victory in these playoffs was 12.9 points.Last year, playoff teams won by an average of 13.7 points. And nearly a quarter of the games played in these two postseasons were decided by 20 or more points.
"Close games, especially in the Western Conference, because we have a lot of teams that play small and play fast, it's going to be a game," Durant said. "It might be a 10-, 15-point game. But throughout the meat of the game, it's always pretty tight."
The meat in the conference finals, though, has been pretty lean.
Tuesday's Game 3 could be an outlier. The Rockets should be sharper and more forceful than they were in Games 1 and 3. And Golden State could be without sixth man Andre Iguodala, who is doubtful with a knee contusion.
"I fully trust they're in the fight of their lives," Houston coach Mike D'Antoni said. "But, again, we've been through a lot of this this year and they've been great. The world will go on. Right now, to me, Golden State has all the pressure. They've got to win tomorrow night. We should come in with a little bit of a swagger and giddy-up in our game."
Coming off a 40-point loss doesn't matter to the Rockets — or to the Warriors. Blowouts or not, Houston is a win from evening the series 2-2.
"I remember what Danny Ainge said 30 years ago. They won a playoff game by 40, and he said, 'This is not the Tour de France.' You don't start with a big lead because it's not based on time or how much you won by," Kerr said. "It's the NBA, so it's 2-1. So doesn't matter what happened yesterday. We have to be ready for a great team that's going to come out like they did in Game 2, attacking, hair on fire. And taking the force to us, and we have to be ready for that tomorrow."