There's nothing quite like once you make it to the back half of a playoff round. The early games are fun don't get me wrong, but nothing compares to the final 2-3 games of a 7 game series (sweeps/gentlemen sweeps obviously excluded). The pressure rises, possessions become even more important, execution in big moments is critical, and in some cases, legacies can be on the line. You add it all up and it sets up as some must watch television.
That's exactly what we have tonight with three separate Game 6s. What makes it interesting is not all Game 6s are created equal. Some teams are entering their action tonight with more pressure than others. Each series has it's own intrigue, so I figured as we all wait for 7pm to get here we may as well talk about all three.
Philadelphia 76ers vs Toronto Raptors (PHI leads 3-2)
I said it yesterday and I'll stress it again. In my heart of hearts, I can't see the Sixers losing this game. Even after seeing the injury report
and knowing how the games looked in Toronto for Games 3 & 4, I'm just not ready to ignore NBA history. Of the 145 3-0 series we've ever seen, only 3 of them finished in 7 games. Granted, only 10 have ever made it to a Game 6 so maybe something's up here, but it would have to be something truly historic to get us to a Game 7 in this series. We know the environment will be incredible and we know there's nothing Doc loves more than choking that closeout game, but at the end of the day there is still more talent on the Philly side even with Embiid's injury. I get what that can do offensively, but a hurt thumb shouldn't impact his ability to move his feet and defend. I'd be very surprised if he was that bad defensively for the second game in a row. He'll have to prove he can handle staying in front of quicker players
but with two days off to rest I would think that might help. I should note though there was a 2 day break in between Games 3 & 4 and the Sixers did drop that Game 4.
It basically comes down to this. Can James Harden and Joel Embiid show up? Their legacies are kind of on the line in this series and the longer they allow it to go the worse it looks. The pressure is only going up and the more they screw around and play with their food you run the risk of something truly disastrous happening. This is the type of game where the superstars have to step up and refuse to allow their team to lose. The true greats are able to do that on the road. LeBron's Game 6 in Boston in 2012 is a great example of that. From the opening possession, there was no denying that man. He dropped 31 in the first half and didn't miss a fucking shot. Dirk went into MIA up 3-2 and put up a title clinching Game 6 performance. That's what Embiid and Harden need to do. They need to leave no doubt. They want to be talked about as MVPs, as franchise guys. Well these are the games you pay your superstars for.
For the Raptors, look, you're playing with house money. Momentum has swung and that shit can be a hell of a drug. At this point you're not even thinking about Game 7. Ride the boost you'll get from the crowd, play smart, attack mismatches and you can win this game. Once you get to a Game 7, anything can happen. You could make the case that the Raptors have outplayed the Sixers in each of the last 3 games so it's not like they won't have confidence. It'll be interesting to see if their championship experience helps them in this game. The Raptors don't feel like the type of team that panics, especially at home.
Phoenix Suns vs New Orleans Pelicans (PHX leads 3-2)
I think the biggest takeaway of this series is the respect that the Pelicans have earned across the league. Not many people watch Pelicans games during the year outside of their own fanbase, so chances are a whole bunch of people were surprised to see them actually give the Suns a run for their money. There's also this pretty important development as we prepare for this Game 6
I'm sure that had Suns fans very excited. Well, here's where things stand as of now
At the very least, this opens the doors for the Pelicans to keep this series alive. Just like the Raptors, they split Games 3 & 4 at home with Game 3 being a 3 point loss. They've proven they can compete and are not going to back down, which in these situations is half the battle. It's clear the Pelicans are not intimidated by the Suns and truly think they can win. If that's going to happen though, CJ McCollum can't go 7-22. As a team, shooting 5-25 from deep probably isn't the best strategy. I would also maybe to look at ways to initiate offense that doesn't start with attacking whoever Mikal Bridges is guarding. The Pels did that way too often in Game 5 and it rarely worked out.
If you're the Suns, you want to end this shit tonight because we ALL KNOW what's coming if there's a Game 7
Foster is off tonight and there's only 1 game tomorrow (MEM/MIN) so it'll be interesting to see if he's assigned to that one. If he isn't and this series goes 7 games, I'd be shocked if he didn't get the nod. That's why the Suns can't even risk that possibility and have to take care of business tonight. I wouldn't say they have the same amount of pressure as someone like PHI simply because they are a much better team and you'd feel better about them playing a Game 7 at home compared to the Sixers, but again why even risk it. One off shooting night could end your season if you let things go that deep.
This is where their veteran experience needs to come through. The Pels are going to be young and jazzed up in front of their home crowd which could lead them to be more mistake prone. They may be playing with house money, but sometimes young teams are so amped up they play careless. That's the one thing you can't do against the Suns, so making sure they're the poised team is crucial. At this point they may have to go with the "let Ingram get his but stop everyone else" approach, but it's time for the Suns to remind everyone why they were talked about as such a wagon this entire year. Elite teams step on their opponents throat in this spot, especially as a 1 seed.
Dallas Mavericks vs Utah Jazz (DAL leads 3-2)
You want to talk about legacies? Let's talk about Luka. Everyone knows how talented he is, Luka is one of the best players in the entire league. He's also never been past the first round at any point of his career. I'd also argue this is the best Mavs team he's ever been on. At some point, Luka is going to have to win a playoff series. We hold all other stars to a pretty high standard when talking about the best players in the league, and yet somehow people sort of let Luka's playoff results slide.
What makes this Game 6 a little different is it's really a toss up. Both sides are healthy, the Jazz are elite at home but also have to deal with the fact that they were just destroyed in Game 5. Are they ready to pack it in, call it a series and effectively end this current era of that core? Or, will they punch back and force a Game 7. I thought how they ended Game 4 might have been a sign that things were turning around, but after what happened in Dallas in Game 5 now I'm not so sure.
There's also some legacy impact here with the Jazz as well. Since Donovan Mitchell showed up in 2017, the Jazz have never made it past the 2nd round. Two first round losses and two second round losses. He's had huge series no doubt, but again, when you're his caliber of player and you have someone like Gobert anchoring the defense, the expectation is that should get you to at least a WCF. If this team loses in the first round for the 3rd time in 4 years, the narrative around both of those players absolutely takes a hit. That might not be fair, but that's the reality.
That's what makes this series so awesome to me. Stars on both sides need to start putting together deep playoff runs if they are going to live up to the hype they get during the year. If the Jazz blow this tonight, that's a wrap for this roster, maybe even their coach. You could see Danny Ainge smash that rebuild button so fast it'll make your head spin. If the Mavs lose and then drop Game 7 at home, at what point does Luka start to get frustrated? There are so many ripple effects that could show up based on how tonight goes.
For the Jazz to keep their season alive, they have to figure out how to put up any sort of resistance on the perimeter. In Game 5, Luka/Brunson combined for 57 points on 20-42 shooting. They completely destroyed the Conley/Mitchell backcourt and honestly, that's been a problem all series, even before Luka came back.
You add this all up and you can see why tonight is going to be such an incredible night of basketball. All I hope for is that we don't get any blowouts, but if we do my hope is that they are coming from a team forcing a Game 7. This first round has been so awesome across the board, we as fans deserve at least a couple Game 7s. With MIA/BOS/MIL/GS wrapping up their series quickly, I'm sure Adam Silver wouldn't mind a few extended series either.