HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — For those who truly love the reality TV drama of the NBA playoffs, this is what we pay and hope for every year. Elimination time, 48 minutes with everything on the line plus seasons (and sometimes careers) hanging in the balance.
We get four of them tonight, four Game 6 matchups (two in the Western Conference and two more in the East) and potentially four teams going fishing.
The posturing is over. Wear black if you want to (New York Knicks), but if you’re not careful and don’t treat Game 6 with the urgency required, the funeral you’ll be attending might be your own (if the Boston Celtics are able to force a Game 7, that will put pressure on the Knicks that could shake the very walls of Madison Square Garden).
The Celtics, Atlanta Hawks, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers are all facing a win-or-go-home circumstance in their respective Games 6 battles tonight. Each one of them trails 3-2 and each one of them will have some serious thinking to do in the aftermath of defeats.
That said, the Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies do not want to let this opportunity to end things slip away. A Game 7, be it at home or on the road, comes with an increased level of intensity that can make anyone crack.
So we’re going game-by-game and detailing exactly what is on the line tonight for the winner and loser of these games:
What’s on the line for the Knicks: Everything! An entire season comes down to whether or not they can survive their own foolishness. Suddenly the Knicks aren’t in a playful mood. Too bad they didn’t adopt that philosophy before Game 5, when they had a chance to end this series on their home floor. Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith have to redeem themselves for their words and actions before and during that Game 5 disaster. Carmelo Anthony, on the other hand, needs simply to return to the MVP form he showed down the stretch of the regular season and early on in this series. Just 21 assists in two games is not the sort of ball movement that led the Knicks to that 3-0 series lead. They either find a way to fix that or face the possibility of a Game 7 at home, which sounds like a good thing … until you remember that the Celtics would welcome another opportunity to silence Spike Lee and the rest of the Knicks faithful at the Garden.
What’s on the line for the Celtics: An era! The Big 3 era ended last season when Ray Allen bolted for Miami. But that was the ceremonial end. The official end comes when this team sees its season finished. No one knows what Danny Ainge has in store for this group when it’s all over. Celtics coach Doc Rivers is a master at preparing his team for big games, but the Knicks did much of the work for him this time by calling out the Celtics. That’s usually all the incentive Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett need to get their fires raging. They responded like the true (and aging) warriors that they are. And they’ll bring a Game 7 zeal to Game 6 and dare the Knicks to match their effort before a home crowd that should be in a full lather by lunch time. While the Knicks have focused their attention elsewhere, Jeff Green has gone about destroying them in the past two games. The Celtics’ supporting cast will be the difference if this series goes to a Game 7.
What’s on the line for the Pacers: Legitimacy! The Pacers fancy themselves as championship contenders this season. And they are serious about it. Problem is, their performance on the road in this series suggests otherwise. If they can’t handle an inconsistent bunch like the Hawks on the road, what exactly can coach Frank Vogel‘s crew do against either the Knicks or Celtics in the conference semifinals? Paul George and David West have designs on leading the Pacers deep into the playoffs, but they better finish this series off first without having to host a Game 7 in the first round. A little help from Roy Hibbert would help. Vogel keeps talking about his team still being young and needing to learn some things along the way. Learning how to survive a mess of your own making with a Game 7 against an inferior foe can’t be what he had in mind.
What’s on the line for the Hawks: The (immediate) future! It’s no secret that the organization is pointing to this summer, and free agency, as their salvation. Any noise the Hawks made in this postseason was strictly for the men in uniform and on the sideline (most of them are playing out the final years of their respective deals). A sustained postseason run is just more advertising, sometimes good and sometimes not so good, for coach Larry Drew and stars Josh Smith, Jeff Teague, Devin Harris, Kyle Korver and others. The fitting way to end their six-year run of consecutive playoff appearances is to go out the same way they did in that first-round series against the Celtics in 2008, losing in a Game 7 in Boston. There is more respect earned going down like that than there is in going down on your home floor in Game 6.
What’s on the line for the Thunder: Kevin Durant’s sanity! The Thunder star won’t have to worry about being second anymore, he’ll have to worry about being first — as in a first-round casualty without his oft-maligned running mate Russell Westbrook. We’ve all wondered what the Thunder would look like without Westbrook in the lineup and taking away shots from Durant. Well, now we know. And it’s not nearly as pretty as some expected it to be. Love him or hate him, Westbrook is a mercurial talent and the player who balances things for the Thunder. Save for the 10 turnovers in the past two games, Durant has been everything you’d want him to be under these circumstances. But the Thunder need more from the rest of the supporting cast. It’s time for Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Martin, Thabo Sefolosha, Reggie Jackson and the boys to do their part.
What’s on the line for the Rockets: Dwight Howard? Seriously! You know the big fella is watching and weighing his options. A Rockets team capable of knocking off the Thunder in the playoffs is going to be an appealing option for the hottest free agent on the market this summer. The Rockets already have another superstar to help shoulder the burden of leading the franchise into the upper echelon of the Western Conference in James Harden. A Harden-Howard, or Howard-Harden (for ego’s sake) combination would be pretty formidable in the years to come, especially with the inevitable power shift that is looming (the Golden State Warriors want in on the insurgency, too). The Rockets’ pursuit of Howard gets a huge boost with the threat of an upset of the Thunder. Were they to actually pull it off … well, don’t get Rockets GM Daryl Morey excited.
What’s on the line for the Clippers: Vinny Del Negro’s job and the Chris Paul era! My main man Clipper Darrell was predicting a full-blown takeover of Los Angeles and its basketball constituency this postseason. But a twist of Blake Griffin‘s ankle and some vicious blows from the rugged Grizzlies has placed Del Negro’s job security and the Clippers’ hold on Paul in serious jeopardy. Phil Jackson is just working as an adviser in the Detroit Pistons’ coaching search. So he’s still going to be available if the Clippers feel the need to pursue his services. And Paul will have plenty of free agent options this summer. If he can’t get out of the first round with the Clippers, he might be forced to look elsewhere for the championship opportunity that has eluded him to this point. This is a must-win game for the Clippers in many ways.
What’s on the line for the Grizzlies: Their championship window! Things couldn’t have lined up any better for the Grizzlies with Westbrook’s injury and the way they’ve played against the Clippers. They’d go into the conference semifinals favored to knock off the top-seeded Thunder, provided they make it past the Rockets. They’d also have favorable matchups against whoever they faced in the conference finals, too, given the way Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are playing right now. You could make a solid case that the Grizzlies boast the most complete (and healthiest) team remaining in the Western Conference playoff field. The chance to supplant the Thunder as the flag bearer for small market teams would be a side benefit for the Grizzlies, who might not have a championship window like this to take advantage of again in the future.