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Who’s More Dead, the Rockets or the Cavaliers?

Sure, Houston evened up with Golden State, and Cleveland still has LeBron. But history says neither has a promising chance of advancing to the Finals.

LeBron James and James Harden Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Cavs, down 2-0 to the Celtics, are not technically dead, but they’re definitely dead. And the Rockets, tied 1-1 with the Warriors, are also not technically dead—in fact, their fireball showing in Game 2 makes them look very alive—but they’re definitely dead, too.

So here’s a question: Who’s more dead? Is being down 2-0 to the Celtics more dead than being tied 1-1 with the Warriors? Or is being tied 1-1 with the Warriors more dead than being down 2-0 to the Celtics?

It’s tricky. Because on the one hand, duh, obviously, absolutely, for sure, being down 2-0 is mathematically worse than being tied 1-1. There’s no arguing that. But there’s also no arguing that the Warriors, duh, obviously, absolutely, for sure, are a better and more imposing team than the Celtics. Beating them three times in five games sounds, if not impossible, then at least slightly more difficult than beating the Celtics four times in five games, right? Think on it like this: If you had to pick a spot for your favorite team to be in, which would you choose: down 2-0 to the Celtics or tied 1-1 with the Warriors? Which one feels the most hopeful? Or: Which one feels the least dead?

Again: It’s tricky.

Because here’s a stat: In the whole history of the NBA, a team has had a 2-0 lead over another team in a seven-game playoff series 300 times. And in those instances, the team with the lead ended up winning the series 281 times. That’s a lot. (Or: 93.7 percent, to be specific.) And bad. (Or: very fucking bad, to be specific.) So definitely the Cavs are more dead than the Rockets.

But here’s another stat: As mentioned, teams in a 2-0 hole have come back to win the series only 19 times out of 300. BUUUUUUUUUUUT, of those 19 improbable turnarounds, LeBron is responsible for two of them. (He did it in 2007 when his Cavs played the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals, and he did it in 2016 when his Cavs played the Warriors in the NBA Finals.) His teams have been in that spot five times and won two of them. So while the leaguewide average says the Cavs have less than a 7 percent chance of coming back, the LeBron-wide average says the Cavs have a 40 percent chance of coming back. So the Rockets are definitely more dead than the Cavs.

But here’s another stat: As a franchise, the Celtics are 37-0 when leading a series 2-0. The basketball ghosts of Larry Bird and Bill Russell steer them toward basketball righteousness. So the Cavs are definitely more dead than the Rockets.

But here’s a different stat: Including their Game 2 loss on Wednesday evening, the Warriors are 25-4 over their past 29 playoff games. That means it took them 28 games to lose three times. And the Rockets have to beat them three more times to win the series. But they don’t get 28 tries. They get a maximum of only five tries, which, FYI, is considerably fewer than 28. If you needed 28 of something to do a thing that you wanted to do, but you could get only five of the something you needed, then guess what that means? It means you’re fucked, is what it means. It means you’re not going to do the thing that you wanted to do, is what it means. It means the Rockets definitely are more dead than the Cavs, is what it means.

But here’s a different stat: All of the players on the Cavs who are not LeBron are terrible. J.R. Smith and George Hill, for example, scored only a combined three points in all of Game 2. AND THOSE ARE THE TWO GUYS WHO WERE THE CAVS’ STARTING BACKCOURT. Ty Lue looked around the locker room, found two guys who were going to score three total points that night, and said, “Yep. You two. You two are the best backcourt players we have on our roster right now.” The Cavs are definitely more dead than the Rockets.

But here’s another stat: The Rockets started the series with home-court advantage. Losing that first game means, best-case scenario, that they now have to win at least one game in Oakland (and both of the potential remaining games in Houston). And here is some extremely very sucky news: The Warriors have not lost even one single playoff game at home since signing Kevin Durant. They have played at Oracle Arena 15 times in the postseason, and 15 times the night has ended with them feeling good about themselves and their opponent feeling bad about themselves. They are literally unbeatable there now. And what’s more, most of the games weren’t even close. Ten of the 15 wins have been by double digits. Against the Warriors, being down double digits is basically the same as being down a thousand digits. So the Rockets are definitely more dead than the Cavs.

But here’s another stat: Kevin Durant was the co-leader in scoring this season for the Warriors (26.4 points per game). And when he scores somewhere near there, they are very difficult to beat (because typically, if he scores only that much, it means the other key players are rolling, too). But the Rockets are doing a good job of getting the Warriors to funnel even more of the offense through Durant (37.5 points per game this series), which is important because the Warriors are only 1-6 in Durant’s seven highest-scoring games of the season/postseason. So the Rockets have not only figured out a way to make the Warriors beatable, but they’ve also figured out how to key in on the strategy and get the Warriors to play into it. (It’s like in 300 when the Spartans force Xerxes’s army through the small corridor, effectively negating the size of the army because only a small number can fit through it at once.) The Cavs are definitely more dead.

But here’s another stat: LeBron. The Cavs have a LeBron. So the Rockets are definitely more dead. (The line “The Cavs have a LeBron” is a play on the line “We have a Hulk” that Tony Stark says to Loki near the end of the first Avengers movie a few minutes before the Incredible Hulk picks up Loki and smashes him into the floor repeatedly.)

But here’s another stat: LeBron has never in his career carried as much of a team’s workload as he is right now. Per Basketball-Reference, he has a playoff usage rate of 35.6 percent and an assist rate of 49.3 percent. Only one other time in NBA history has a player been responsible for that level of burden (usage rate over 35 percent and an assist rate over 40 percent) beyond just one round. It was LeBron in 2015. And that postseason did not turn out so great for him. The Cavs are definitely more dead. (If we extend the Avengers mention in the section above, then this is like the part at the beginning of the new Avengers movie when Loki says to Thanos, “We have a Hulk,” and then the Incredible Hulk tries to box Thanos and Thanos is just like, “LOL. Nah, bitch” to him.)

So who’s more dead?

The Cavs or the Rockets?

Or are they both equally dead?

Or does it not even matter at all?

The universe is cold, and dark, and mostly empty, and it’s terrifying, and there’s no way the Rockets are going to win three of the next five games.

The Rockets are more dead.