By Matt Citak
The 2017 NBA offseason was one of the craziest in recent memory. We saw one blockbuster trade after another go down, with many superstars exchanging their old jersey for a new one.
Jimmy Butler packed up his things in Chicago and headed west to join Tom Thibodeau and the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Paul George was traded from the Indiana Pacers to the Oklahoma City Thunder, where Carmelo Anthony would join him a few months later after being shipped out of New York.
And let’s not forget about the smaller but still significant deals, such as the Brooklyn Nets getting D’Angelo Russell from the Los Angeles Lakers, the Utah Jazz nabbing Ricky Rubio from the Timberwolves, and the Charlotte Hornets picking up Dwight Howard from the Atlanta Hawks.
It was a certainly a hectic offseason, but last summer’s two biggest moves have set the stage for both of this year’s conference finals.
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First, the Houston Rockets acquired future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers, officially ending the Lob City Era in LA and giving James Harden an extremely talented right-hand man.
When Rockets GM Daryl Morey made the trade to bring Paul to Houston, he did so with one goal in mind — to dethroning the Golden State Warriors and ending their dynasty. Morey has even gone on record stating he’s “obsessed” with taking down the Warriors.
This became even more obvious when the Rockets agreed to deals with veterans PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute later in the summer. While neither of these players is known for their offense, they have both established themselves as smart and versatile defenders in the NBA.
So it should surprise no one that both were brought to Houston for this exact moment — to match up against all of the Warriors’ offensive firepower.
Later in the summer, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics made a trade that completely shocked the sports world. Just a couple of months after Cleveland defeated Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals, the two teams agreed to a deal that would send All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving to Boston.
It’s clear that Boston has slowly been improving each year since the 2013-14 season that saw them finish with a mere 25 wins. After winning 53 games last season and earning the Eastern Conference’s top seed in the playoffs, the Celtics were wildly disappointed when they fell to Cleveland in the conference finals, 4-1.
Similar to his counterpart in Houston, Celtics GM Danny Ainge made the trade for Irving in an attempt to get a competitive advantage over the Cavaliers, who had made the NBA Finals in each of the previous three seasons.
While acquiring a franchise point guard is obviously part of Boston’s long-term plan as well, Ainge’s more immediate concern was about finding a way to beat the Cavaliers this season.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s been nearly a year in the making, but after a long and tumultuous season, we are finally here.
The conference finals we’ve all been waiting for.
Houston vs. Golden State. Cleveland vs. Boston.
Golden State took the first game of the Western Conference Finals, 119-106, due in large part to the lack of production from Harden’s supporting cast. If you take the likely league MVP out of the equation, Houston shot just 40.9 percent from the field and a dismal 28.6 percent from the three-point line in the opening game.
That sort of performance won’t beat a team as talented as Golden State.
No one said it was going to be easy, but after cruising to an NBA-best 65-17 record this season, the Rockets are not going to simply roll over. They will have to be nearly perfect in this series to take down the mighty Warriors, but after winning the season series, 2-1, the Rockets have already proven that they can beat the Warriors.
Amazingly, despite playing without Irving and Gordon Hayward, their two best players, the Celtics have jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. After Cleveland steamrolled the Toronto Raptors in the previous round, 4-0, few people gave Boston a fighting chance in this series. Fewer still thought they’d take the first two games.
The Cavaliers entered the series as heavy favorites over the Celtics, so it would be unwise to count LeBron James and Co. out quite yet.
We have all seen what LeBron is capable of when his back is to the wall in the postseason. If he can lead the Cavs back from a 3-1 deficit against the Warriors in the Finals, then he certainly can mount a comeback against the Celtics
With Houston and Cleveland both facing extreme uphill battles in their respective series, the top two MVP candidates (Harden and James) need to step up, even more.
So fasten your seat belts, folks. The drama in these conference finals match-ups, which began almost a year ago with those blockbuster trades, will only build from here. No one’s giving up without a fight.
Matt Citak is a contributor for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter.