The first round of the NBA playoffs is nearing its conclusion, and for some teams, the end could come on Wednesday night.
After a hard-fought victory in Game 4, the Boston Celtics will look to stave off elimination yet again in Game 5 against the New York Knicks in the Big Apple. James Harden and the Rockets stole Game 4 from the Oklahoma City Thunder after going down 3-0 and hope to advance to Game 6.
Then there's the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers, the series we both appreciate and loathe. Neither team is in danger of being sent home, but an ample amount of momentum is on the line.
Atlanta tied the series at two games apiece in Game 4 after initially trailing 2-0. Now the Hawks will look to take their first lead in Game 5 from a suddenly reeling Pacers team.
Will we be closing the book on one or both of Boston or Houston's season, or will the Celtics and Rockets live to fight yet another game? And who will put themselves in position to advance in Game 6 following a Game 5 victory, the Hawks or Pacers?
Boston Celtics at New York Knicks
You've heard this before but I'm obligated to say it again: No NBA team has come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series. But could Boston be the first?
The Celtics escaped Beantown with a 97-90 victory in Game 4, a performance that was both inspiring and discomposing.
Boston led by as many as 20 points in the third quarter, and for awhile, looked as if it would run away with the game. New York came storming back and forced an overtime, though. It was there that the Jason Terry the Celtics thought they were signing decided to show up, and he helped them win the game.
Though the victory showed grit, Boston struggled to put away a Knicks team that was down their second-leading Scorer in J.R. Smith, who was suspended for one game after elbowing Terry in Game 3. The Celtics were shorthanded themselves, but this would have been more of a statement win had it not been so close in the end.
Still, the Knicks can feel the Celtics breathing down their necks. A loss to them in New York forces a Game 6 in Boston and breathes new life into Paul Pierce and crew's cause. That's not where the Knicks want to be.
For New York to advance, it will have to protect the ball better than it did in Game 4 (15 turnovers) and limit Boston's fast-break opportunities (15 points in Game 4).
Boston needs to find a way to take the Knicks' three-point shooting out of the equation. New York hit on at least 36 percent of its deep balls through the first three games before converting on just 23.3 percent in the Game 4 loss.
Should the Celtics force the Knicks into some contested threes (like Game 4) and continue to relegate Carmelo Anthony to an inefficient scorer who relies on drawing fouls more than hitting shots, they should be able to stay close. Failure to do any of that will culminate in a loss.
After picking the Knicks in five (before changing it to six), I had them winning in Game 4 (much to my chagrin). At home, playing in front of a vociferous New York crowd, the Knicks won't allow this one to slip away.
Prediction: Knicks 94, Celtics 87
Atlanta Hawks at Indiana Pacers
Indiana appeared in control of this series through the first two games, but now it's Atlanta carrying a majority (OK, all) of the momentum.
Following a Game 4 victory, the Hawks now have the opportunity to take their first lead of the series and head back to the Highlight Factory with the chance to move on to the second round. That puts the pressure on the Pacers (who I picked to win in five games). They were having their way with the Hawks until suddenly, they weren't.
I don't have to tell you that the Pacers need to defend the three-ball better than they did in Game 4, but I'm going to anyway. The Hawks connected on 45.8 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. Indiana is one of the best in the league at making defensive adjustments and shoring up assignments/rotations from game to game, so that shouldn't be a problem.
The real quandary is staying out of foul trouble (cough, Roy Hibbert). Paul George, David West and Hibbert have spent the last two games battling foul trouble at one point or another. George and Hibbert each finished Game 4 with five each.
Indiana also needs Hibbert to be more consistent on the offensive end, something we've known it's needed all year. He disappeared in Game 3 (eight points) and was aggressive only in certain spots in Game 4.
Atlanta just needs to keep defending. More specifically, the Hawks need to keep the Pacers outside of the paint. They've held Indiana to under 40 percent shooting in each of the last two games, the first of which was a blowout.
George and friends have showed they can explode on the offensive end, but when they're forced to work the perimeter more than they please, they struggle to score.
Envisioning the Pacers dropping a third straight game to the Hawks borders on insane. I'm often a fan of insanity, but not in this one. Indiana's defense will lock them down and the Pacers will move within one win of advancing.
Prediction: Pacers 91, Hawks 86
Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder
Oklahoma City has returned home to try and put the finishing touches on Houston, something it nearly did in Game 4.
Serge Ibaka missed a game-tying put-back at the buzzer, which allowed the Rockets to procure their first victory of the series. Harden and company will now attempt to push whatever momentum they've built even further with a second straight win.
But will they? Too many bones in my body are screaming yes, for reasons that are mostly irrational.
Harden seems due for an explosion that kills the Thunder. He's shooting 36.4 percent from the field in this series (16 percent from deep), and I'm just waiting for him to do more than get to the free-throw line. And that's just got to happen. This is Harden we're talking about.
I said the same thing about the bearded one in the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat last year. Look how that turned out.
The Thunder are too formidable a team at home for me to pick the Rockets and not hate myself (plus, you know, I had them in five games anyway). They're clearly not the same team sans Westbrook and haven't had the easiest of times getting to the rim, but they're now 36-7 at home (including the playoffs) on the year.
One thing that does worry me is Ibaka's offense. Houston found a way to limit his impact on that end of the floor in Game 4. He took just eight shots and hit on three of them. Can the Thunder count on Reggie Jackson and Kevin Martin to combine for another 34 in Game 5?
My anxieties are quelled when I realize how inconsistent Houston's defense is. The Rockets' Game 4 showing was one of their better defensive performances, and they still allowed 103 points and won by just two.
Houston has showed it can keep games close, and that's exactly what it will do in Game 5. Ultimately, it will be to no avail.
I'm secretly hoping I'm wrong, because I want one of the teams that fell behind 3-0 to force at least a Game 6. We already know it's not going to be the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Celtics have done nothing to convince me it will be them, leaving the Rockets with the best shot.
Prediction: Thunder 109, Rockets 104
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
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