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.
In the last few years, NBA head coaching salaries have skyrocketed, and new Lakers coach Luke Walton is no exception. According to the Los Angeles Times‘ Mike Bresnahan, Walton is getting $25 million over five years, which is the same as Steve Kerr’s deal with the Warriors, now-former Knicks coach Derek Fisher’s deal in New York, and Fred Hoiberg’s deal with the Bulls.
This kind of money has become standard for head coaches who don’t also have front-office power. Tom Thibodeau and Stan Van Gundy both get between $7 and $8 million annually to do both jobs. Given how good Walton’s current situation with the Warriors is, the Lakers probably had to be on the high end of the coaching spectrum to get him to leave.
On Friday night, the Lakers announced that they’re hiring Luke Walton as their next head coach, effective as soon as the Warriors’ playoff run is over. It’s a good hire, but it’s especially interesting given Walton’s close relationship with Phil Jackson and the rumors that never seem to go away, that Jackson might be set up to return to the Lakers to run the team alongside fiancée Jeanie Buss after next season, when he has an opt-out in his contract with the Knicks.
But that doesn’t mean Walton will be running the triangle, as he said in his first comments to reporters since the news broke.
Via the Orange County Register‘s Bill Oram:
Regardless of whether Jackson eventually gets back in the picture in Los Angeles, Walton has been a successful assistant in Golden State and has the right temperament to lead the Lakers into the post-Kobe era.
Stephen Curry might be back sooner than expected. It’s been one week since he suffered the sprained MCL in his right knee that led the Warriors to rule him out for at least two weeks, but head coach Steve Kerr said Saturday that there’s at least an outside chance he could play Tuesday in Game 2 of Golden State’s second-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Via ESPN.com’s Marc Stein:
Obviously, the smart money is on Curry not playing this early in his timetable. But the fact that it’s even on the table would seem to indicate that, barring a setback, he’ll be back for at least some of the series, which tips off Sunday.
Since Chris Paul withdrew from this summer’s Olympic team, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James are the only players left from the 2008 team. If they played this summer in Rio de Janeiro, they would have the chance to be the only men’s basketball players ever to win three gold medals. But James is still undecided, and Anthony tells The Vertical‘s Michael Lee that he is also still weighing it:
USA Basketball has provided Anthony his only opportunity to win at a high level since he became a professional. Anthony sounded optimistic in March that his surgically repaired left knee wouldn’t prevent him from going after an unprecedented third gold medal. But since then, Chris Paul withdrew, citing the need for rest, and left Anthony and LeBron James as the only players from the 2008 team remaining in the Team USA selection pool. “It definitely would help,” Anthony said, if James decides to make one more run, but Anthony isn’t close to making a final decision.
“That’s at the top of the sport, of any sport. I think if you have the opportunity to do it, and enjoy it, and take advantage of it, I think you should do it. [The Olympics are] the throne for sports as a whole,” Anthony told The Vertical. “I’m going to take a little more time to think about it. I’m not in a rush. NBA season is still going on, so I’m going to see how I feel physically. Am I ready to take on – I don’t want to say burden, but – that load? If I’m ready, I’ll do it. If not, my body won’t lie to me.”
Anthony turns 32 next month—if he does play, it will undoubtedly be his final run with the national team. But his concerns about rest are valid, even though he was healthier this year than he was last season, when he had season-ending knee surgery. James’ decision will be even more interesting: he cares deeply about his place in history, but he’s had absolutely no time off since 2011, between five straight Finals runs (and likely a sixth) and the 2012 gold-medal run with the Olympic team.
If Anthony ultimately decides not to play, it would open up another spot for a forward, which could go to the likes of Draymond Green, Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler. All of this is worth keeping an eye on as July’s training camp gets closer.