6 Takeaways from Friday Night's NBA Action
There is no hiding in a seven-game series.
Heavy scouting and intense film study gives teams an idea of what they'll be facing in an upcoming matchup, but nothing tells the true strengths and weaknesses of an opponent like facing them multiple times over a two-week period.
Friday night's four-game schedule saw eight teams battling for their lives in the final stages of first-round pairings.
The Boston Celtics and New York Knicks waged war in Beantown, where the implications for both clubs extended well beyond the current season. A Celtics loss could mean the end of an era, as both Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce faced uncertain futures with the franchise. A Knicks loss meant they were one step closer to being the victims of the biggest postseason comeback in NBA history.
The Indiana Pacers entered play with a 3-2 lead over the Atlanta Hawks, but hadn't won inside Atlanta's Philips Arena in nearly seven years. The Los Angeles Clippers needed to steal one on the road against the Memphis Grizzlies to stay in the championship chase, while a Memphis win would have provided further validation to its midseason Rudy-Gay-for-Tayshaun-Prince swap.
As for the Oklahoma City Thunder, they were left attempting to avoid the history books without the help of their All-Star point guard. The Houston Rockets, winners of two straight, looked to take another step toward becoming the first team to crawl out of a 0-3 hole.
Which teams were able to punch their second-round ticket, and which were left preparing body and mind for a winner-take-all Game 7?
Read on to find out everything you need to know about Friday night's win-or-go-home action.
1. Blue and Orange Delicious
It's been a while since basketball dominated the Big Apple.
Save for a magical ride courtesy of Jeremy Lin last season, the Knicks had struggled to maintain relevance (although not at the expense of media coverage) after Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell and Patrick Ewing carried this club to the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals.
But for the first time in 13 years, the Knicks are officially extending their postseason stay beyond the first round thanks to an 88-80 win over the Boston Celtics in Game 6.
It was far more a survive-and-advance type of game rather than dominate-and-dispatch, one bolstered not by the scoring champion that had carried them down the stretch but rather the type of team effort that defined New York's early-season surge.
Carmelo Anthony still stands atop the box score with a team-high 21 points, but shot below 35 percent from the field for the third straight game (7-of-23, 30.4 percent).
But unlike the last two games (both Knicks losses), Melo knew when to curtail his attempts. Those 23 shots represented his lightest workload of the series, and helped his teammates leave their imprint on the game.
Iman Shumpert poured in 17 points, 15 of them in the second half, added six rebounds and had analysts drooling over his defensive exploits. The often hesitant Pablo Prigioni let it fly on Friday night, finding 12 of his 14 points from beyond the arc.
Usually a combined 12-of-36 stat line for Anthony and J.R. Smith equals a Knicks loss. But this was simply addition by addition (what a concept, right?), and perhaps a potential solution to another series win.
2. When Indiana Wins, America Wins
OK, so maybe that doesn't hold true 99 percent of the time.
But the Pacers' 91-83 win over the Hawks brought a merciful end to this painful playoff clash.
Despite the narrow 3-2 series gap heading into the night, the series had been about as exciting as an Andre Miller highlight reel. None of the first five games was decided by fewer than 11 points, as both teams shifted in and out of offensive consciousness.
Hollywood couldn't have scripted a more fitting culmination.
The shooting slashes were video-game numbers, only with the difficulty ramped up and the player skill level floored: .421/.200/.667 for Indiana, .333/.158/.900 for Atlanta. The second quarter was particularly brutal, as the two teams combined for just eight field goals, with the Pacers accounting for seven of the makes.
There were flashes of defensive brilliance sprinkled between disastrous offensive displays.
David West, Roy Hibbert and Paul George combined for seven swats. Indiana's starting backcourt, George Hill and Lance Stephenson, totaled 18 boards, helping build its 53-35 edge on the glass.
When Indiana found offense it often came aboard Hibbert's broad shoulders (17 points) in the first half. As Atlanta looked to take him out of the equation, West and Hill (21 points each) were left to do most of the heavy lifting after intermission.
George suffered through a brutal 2-of-10 night from the field, but did manage seven boards, seven dimes, a pair of thefts and a block in his 44 minutes.
Indiana's not going to win many beauty contests, but there's nothing wrong with winning ugly at this time of year.
3. The (Possible) End of an Era
No one knows what Danny Ainge is thinking right now.
But a mental debate has clearly begun inside the mind of the Celtics president of basketball operations. He admitted he has a "very hard" decision to make regarding the future of Boston icon Paul Pierce (via A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN New England).
Pierce, a 35-year-old 15-year veteran, has more than $15 million headed his way next season unless the organization opts to dish out the $5 million needed to buy out the final year of his deal.
If his Celtics days are truly coming to an end, then this was hardly the kind of departure he had envisioned. His 14-point effort in Game 6 gave him a 19.2 scoring average for the series—a number that doesn't look too bad until you add in his 36.8 field-goal percentage, 26.8 three-point success rate or his 5.3 turnovers per game.
If jettisoning a legend isn't a hard enough choice to make, there's a Domino effect in play here for Ainge to ponder.
Kevin Garnett, a 36-year-old who just completed his 18th NBA season, contemplated retirement last season and the thought can't be too far from his mind given the physical toll he endured over the final weeks of the season.
A player as passionate and intensely loyal as KG never walks away from the game easily, but a portion of that burden will be lifted if his long-time friend, Pierce, is taken out of the picture.
Boston has some intriguing young pieces moving forward (Jeff Green's 21 points was his fourth venture above the 20-point mark this series), and All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo (torn ACL) is already well into his rehab process.
Whether or not Ainge can envision all those parts forming a championship future next season will go a long way in determining his next move.
4. One Man's Will
Kevin Durant may have lost his stranglehold on the regular-season scoring crown to Carmelo Anthony, but no player has been assigned a heavier offensive load than the Durantula in the postseason.
His 27-point performance in Oklahoma City's series-clinching 103-94 victory over the Houston Rockets pushed his postseason scoring average to 32.5 (the only player in the league above the 30-point threshold).
But if he was simply a dominant scorer in these playoffs, the Thunder would have been on the verge of the worst collapse in NBA history.
As it stands, the Thunder built a laundry list of concerns after suffering consecutive losses in Games 4 and 5 with a hobbled Russell Westbrook (torn meniscus) reduced to an observer's role. But Oklahoma City's still standing thanks to the all-around efforts of its MVP candidate.
He tossed out six more assists on Friday night, giving him 23 in the four games since Westbrook went down. He corralled a team-high eight rebounds, the third time in the last four games he's pulled down eight-plus boards.
In less than a four-minute stretch that carried over into the fourth quarter, Durant scored nine of the Thunder's 11 points (the other two being a Reggie Jackson layup off a Durant assist) as Oklahoma City turned a five-point deficit into a three-point lead. He embarked on a solo 9-2 run after Houston opened the game on a 15-4 spurt.
The competition only stiffens from here with the Memphis Grizzlies next on their list, and Westbrook's absence only becomes more glaring.
But no other team has Durant on the roster, and the Thunder are still learning just how important that is.
5. Grizzled Grit
The Grizzlies and Clippers have turned basketball's biggest stage into a slugfest before, but their Game 6 collision looked better suited for the Octagon.
There aren't many times when fouls are the first thing to jump out of a box score (at least not without Tim Donaghy's involvement), but the 59 combined personal fouls, seven technicals and two ejections in this game were tough to miss.
The two teams combined for 71 attempts at the foul line, where Memphis held a decisive edge in both attempts (47 to 24) and percent converted (80.9 to 66.7).
But it wasn't the powerful post players bruising each other (Zach Randolph, 7-of-8 at the line, was the only frontcourt player with more than four three-throw attempts). Rather, the guards repeatedly found their way to the charity stripe. Mike Conley attempted a game-high 17, backcourt mate Tony Allen hoisted 11, and Chris Paul led the Clippers with nine.
Basically this was nearly the antithesis of what was to be expected.
The Grizzlies, who averaged 96.6 points in the previous five games, sprinted to a 118-105 series-clinching win. Randolph and Conley paced the Memphis attack (23 points each), but the defensive-minded Allen nipped at their heels with 19, and reserve Jerryd Bayless, who had scored a total of 16 points in his last four games, poured in 18.
Paul did his typical damage (28 points, eight assists) before picking up his second technical foul late in the fourth quarter, but Matt Barnes suddenly emerged as L.A.'s most consistent offensive weapon (30 points, including 6-of-7 from three).
Not everything was out of the ordinary, though.
Randolph and Blake Griffin, who played less than 14 minutes due to a high sprained ankle he suffered in Game 5, got into a third quarter wrestling match that resulted in fouls for both players and the first of two technicals on Z-Bo.
6. $130 Million Well Spent
As with all season-ending losses, Houston's 103-94 loss will take some time to recover from, but the future shines bright for the youthful Rockets, and Daryl Morey's masterful maneuvers deserve all the credit for that.
He rolled the dice on a pair of unproven players (Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin) and received instant returns that lasted all season long. He thrust a supporting actor (James Harden) into a leading role that was near Oscar-worthy. He found a lethal Swiss army knife (Chandler Parsons) in the second round of the 2011 NBA draft. And he found a feisty, versatile point guard (Patrick Beverley) lost in Russia.
Harden looms large as his most prized possession (he once again paced the Rockets with 26 points and seven assists), but is merely a piece of his growing, improving collection. Parsons looked brilliant in Game 6 (25 points, seven boards) and Asik continued adding to his own collection with his third straight double double (13 points, 13 rebounds).
Westbrook's loss was a crushing blow for the Thunder, but Lin's absence (who logged just 14 minutes after missing the last two games with a bruised chest) was often overlooked.
The Rockets outperformed expectations this year, and that's without knowing all of the true talents of their roster. Royce White, Thomas Robinson, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas are all potential wild cards in the seasons to come.