OAKLAND — Clear the stage. Tune up the instruments. Check the sound.
The warmup acts are done. The headliner is up next.
The San Antonio Spurs opened this festival at Oracle Arena. They played a slow, moody set that didn’t do much to get the audience moving. As performers, the Spurs were technically superb. But they played without a lot of intensity. Some of the folks in the seats might have taken short naps.
The New Orleans Pelicans were a completely different experience. They played fast, played loud, played reckless at times. The speed with which they hit their notes was incredible. But they’re a young band. Their act just isn’t that tight yet.
Now the Pelicans, like the Spurs before them, have cleared the stage. The Warriors sent them home Tuesday night. The Pelicans waved halfheartedly at the crowd and trudged to their dressing room. And now they are spectators, watching from the wings and taking mental notes. The Spurs and Pelicans have been reduced to fans, no more involved than the rest of us.
We have all been waiting for the main act, and now it’s here: the Warriors vs. the Houston Rockets.
Well, it’s almost here. You know how these big shots work the audience. They will milk the moment, wait for us to down a beer or two and chant their names. Finally, the lights will dim, and the best teams in the NBA will take the stage.
This has been building for an entire basketball season. The Rockets announced themselves by beating Golden State in the first game of the season, a 122-121 ripsnorter, and were 25-4 by December 18. They won so often, and so relentlessly, that at some point the Warriors conceded the race for the No. 1 seed and stopped trying to overtake them. Houston wound up winning the conference by a full seven games.
But you knew all along whom the Rockets would play in the Western Conference finals. Of course it would be the Warriors. The defending champions somehow managed to upgrade their roster over the offseason. And though they were challenged by injuries and apathy for much of the 2017-18 season, the Warriors remained the team to beat.
They are still the team to beat. And finally they have an opponent who actually has a chance to do it. After months of prelude and buildup — of mere warmup acts — the big event is here.
“I think it will be very entertaining,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said, a short time after his team was eliminated. “There’s great players on there. You take CP (Rockets point guard Chris Paul) and James Harden, it’s a great backcourt. You take the Warriors, and they’ve been there so many times, big game after big game. They’ll be solid, too. So I’m looking forward to it. I think it will be a great series.”
It really could be. These two teams have been on parallel tracks for a while. The Warriors won their first-round playoff series in five games; so did the Rockets, against Minnesota. The Warriors needed five games in the second round, too; so did the Rockets, against Utah. Both winners wrapped up their business Tuesday. Houston played first, and polished off the Jazz right around the time the Warriors tipped off.