By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — This was already the best first round of NBA playoff basketball these eyes have seen.
From the opening tip of the very first game to last night’s Dame of Thrones dagger from Portland Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard that eliminated the would-be-champion Houston Rockets in six games, this first-round whirlwind has been above and beyond anyone’s wildest imagination of what the first step of these 2014 NBA playoffs could be.
We’ve had 21 games decided by five points or less, eight overtime (or multiple overtime) games and a final weekend of the first round like nothing we’ve ever seen. The previous record for Game 7s in the same first round is just two, done several times and most recently in 2012 (the first round didn’t go to Game 7s until 2003).
By the opening tip Sunday this will be the most games we’ve ever seen in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
So this historic two-day finish, a staggering five Game 7s, kicking off today with three winner-take-all contests — making this the #BestNBAPlayoffSaturdayEver! — is the happy ending to every hoops lover’s dream scenario.
This is also the first time in NBA history we’ve had the pleasure of watching three Game 7s on the same day. All you have to do is tune in to TNT at 5 p.m. ET and you’ll get roughly eight straight hours of the game’s very best fighting it out for their playoff lives.
If we get five more games anything like what we’ve already seen, you’ll need extra supplies to get through what should be an absolutely wild weekend.
Your Saturday menu …
Game 1 — Atlanta Hawks at Indiana Pacers, 5:30 p.m. ET
Will we get a Roy Hibbert sighting in what should easily be the most important game of his career, to date? He’ll be in uniform. And he’ll probably be in the starting lineup, as he has in all six games of this series so far. But will he actually show up? That’s the question that lingers for the Pacers’ flummoxed All-Star center.
The Hawks are not going to change their stripes now. They’re going to stretch the floor and try to make the Pacers defend that 3-point line as best they can, a strategy Mike Budenholzer‘s crew has worked to perfection when they are knocking down their shots. They’ll need another 15-for-27-type effort that helped them win Game 5 in Indy and not the 9-for-35 misery that cost them Game 6 at home. By the way, No. 8 seeds are 0-2 all-time against No. 1 seeds in Game 7s.
Let’s be real. The Pacers should have the edge. Paul George avoided suspension after he and several other players from both teams stepped onto the court during an altercation between Pacers point guard George Hill and Hawks forward Mike Scott in Game 6.
Except, of course, for that little fact that the Hawks have basically owned the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse the past month. “My thing is that three of the last four times we’ve played these guys (in Indy), they built 20-point leads and beat us pretty good,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “So I don’t think anyone from this team can think we’re going to be OK just because we’re back home.”
Game 2 — Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder, 8 p.m. ET
Grizzlies big man Zach Randolph could not avoid the NBA’s disciplinary council, losing his chance to play in Game 7 after jaw-jacking Thunder rookie center Steven Adams — who adds the rugged Randolph to his long list of opposing players that have lost their cool trying to deal with the big fella. Raise your hand if you thought Adams would be the most important player in this series … didn’t think so!
As usual, Thunder coach Scott Brooks is in the crosshairs with his team’s season on the line. His lineup decisions — Caron Butler for Thabo Sefolosha? — with Randolph out will be scrutinized to no end if things go awry. It’ll be his fault regardless of what happens. Brooks has become a convenient scapegoat whenever folks discuss the Thunder.
Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley is ailing, too, giving coach Dave Joerger even more to worry about than just playing without Z-Bo. He’ll have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in full attack mode, not to mention that home crowd that won’t sit down until the game is in hand one way or another. If the Grizzlies really are planning on doing something special tonight, they’ll have to do it with some big-game contributions from someone with experience in these pressure-packed situations (Mike Miller anyone?).
If the Thunder can’t find its way out of this series, they’ll need to take a long and hard look at their personnel … and that’s from Brooks and his staff all the way down to the end of the bench. They don’t have an endless title-chasing window with this group, even with Durant and Westbrook headed into the primes of their careers. Game 7 is huge for all involved but it’s even more critical for the future of this particular Thunder group.
Game 3 — Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Clippers, 10:30 p.m. ET
You have to give Warriors coach Mark Jackson credit, he’s played the mind game in this series every bit as well as his team has played the actual games on the court. “The pressure’s on them,” Jackson told to the Mercury News Friday. “They earned the right to have home court, and they’ve got some stars — some in uniform, and one in a suit and tie. The pressure’s on them.” There’s plenty of pressure on Jackson, too. His players know it and so does everyone else. They’re fighting for him as much as anyone, per J.A. Adande of ESPN.
Speaking of pressure, that buzz about this being a defining moment for Clippers superstar point Chris Paul is not going anywhere. He’s working on a bad hamstring, but all eyes will be on CP3 tonight. As good as Blake Griffin , Jamal Crawford, DeAndre Jordan and others have been this season, this is still his team to lead to championship glory. His matchup with Steph Curry has been every bit as entertaining as expected, but he needs to finish with a flurry or face the wrath of a growing number of critics who insist he hasn’t come up big in the biggest situations for his team in the postseason.
The Warriors enjoy one of the best home crowds in all of sports. But they’ll have to dial-up a signature performance without the aid of that bunch that keep Oracle Arena rocking every night. That means cold-blooded marksmanship from Curry and Klay Thompson and something extra from Draymond Green, who has become the wild card in this series. If he can work his way under Griffin’s skin and get the Clippers’ All-Star into early foul trouble, the entire complexion of this game changes.
That “star in a suit and tie” that Jackson referenced, Clippers coach Doc Rivers, is doing double and perhaps even triple time on the job these days. The vice president of basketball operations is serving as the resident healer in chief not only for his players but also other employees within the organization in the wake of the Donald Sterling drama. For 48 minutes, and hopefully five or even 10 more tonight, he’ll be locked in strictly on what’s going on between those lines on the Staples Center floor.
As they say, you better get your popcorn ready for the #BestNBAPlayoffSaturdayEver!
Oh, and save some for Sunday …