May 3, 2013, 11:59 AM EDT
This is going to be one wild night in the NBA — four first-round Game 6 showdowns.
Four games where a team’s season hangs in the balance, and another has the chance to close out and advance to the second round.
Who is most likely to force a Game 7?
Let’s break it on down, in order of most to least likely to be playing one more game.
1) Atlanta Hawks (over Indiana Pacers in Atlanta). I know you haven’t watched this series but as someone who has suffered through every minute of it, let me tell you the Hawks are going to win this game. Because these two teams are Jekyll and Hyde on the road/at home — every game in this series has been won by at least 11 points by the home team — and the Hawks are home for Game 6. Look for Josh Smith to have another big game, getting points in transition and attacking, and expect Jeff Teague to come out and play much better (Al Horford will be a rock as always). Indiana is the better team in this series, they made some adjustments that worked very well in Game 5 (forcing Smith to cover Paul George handling the ball in the pick-and-roll, for one) but I question if they can execute that on the road.
2) Houston Rockets (over Oklahoma City Thunder in Houston). The Thunder are the better team in this series, but they have not had time to adjust their game to life without Russell Westbrook. Boston has had its moments without Rajon Rondo where the offense flowed, but they had time to figure that out in the regular season, to experiment with lineups and what worked. Scott Brooks and the Thunder have had none of that; they have the Rockets wisely overloading the defense on Kevin Durant and daring anyone else to beat them. The Thunder can win — Kevin Martin is fully capable of lighting it up for a night — but the Rockets will be hard to close out at home where you can expect James Harden and Chandler Parsons to put up points.
3) Boston Celtics (over New York Knicks in Boston). This is all about Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks — they are the better team in this series, but they have gotten away from what makes them better. During their regular season win streak the Knicks were moving the ball strong-to-weak like the Heat and Spurs. But in this series they have gone back to isolation basketball — in the regular season the Knicks averaged 15 isolation sets a game (higher than the league average of 10), but against the Celtics that has jumped to 26 a game, according to ESPN’s stats and research people. The Celtics Thibodeau-inspired defense overloads the strong side and will shut down isolation plays. The Celtics will play hard, they will defend, and at home they could get a big game from Jeff Green from them. Could. But if Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith move the ball the Knicks can and should win. If not, they are playing on Sunday.
4) Los Angeles Clippers (over Memphis Grizzlies in Memphis). It’s hard to see this series reaching a Game 7 unless Blake Griffin’s sprained ankle has made a miraculous recovery. The Clippers need to find a way to slow down the force that is Zach Randolph and without a 100 percent Griffin I don’t see how they do that. Sure, the Clippers can try to open the game up by going small for extended stretches — Matt Barnes at the four — but the Grizzlies invite that kind of floor chaos. They pick you apart when you do it. The Clippers will need to play the best defense of this series and they will have to get a monster game out of DeAndre Jordan against Marc Gasol to win this. On the road. Chris Paul will do everything he can, but it’s probably not going to be enough.
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