Every game in a best-of-seven series feels dire, but some contests are more important than others. These are the pivot games, contests that will define the rest of the series.
Generally speaking, Game 4 is such a game.
It's the first possible elimination game, yes, but it's also a game that more often decides whether a team will take a commanding 3-1 lead in a series or things will draw even at two games apiece. On Sunday, all four games will be Game 4's in series led by one team, 2-1. Three of them will feature teams that absolutely must seize control.
Let's break them down.
Washington Wizards vs. New York Bulls
The Wizards were this close to taking a commanding 3-0 lead in this series. In fact, were it not for Mike Dunleavy's shocking 35-point performance in Game 3, they probably would be a game away from the second round.
But as it stands, Dunleavy breathed life into the Bulls. And now, the Wizards are a Game 4 loss away from conceding home-court advantage in this series.
Perhaps they aren't overly concerned with that fact after winning the first two games in Chicago, but there is also momentum to consider. Conceding a two-game lead in a series is never good for morale, and the Bills will feel in control of the series should they win Game 4.
Dunleavy isn't going to be the second coming of Larry Bird very often, of course. But Washington can't afford to lose Game 4 even if he is—they still have the Bulls on the ropes, and they'd be wise to keep them there.
Brooklyn Nets vs. Toronto Raptors
Brooklyn finds itself in a similar position to Washington. The Nets are the lower seed, have a 2-1 advantage in the series and could seize home-court advantage for themselves by winning Game 4 in their own building.
This series has been too close to call thus far. Game 1 was tight well into the fourth quarter. In Game 2, DeMar DeRozan's 17 fourth-quarter points led the Raptors to a five-point win. In Game 3, the Nets nearly blew a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter, just holding off a late Raptors rally.
In other words, very little separates these teams. The Nets have a golden opportunity in Game 4 to distance themselves from the Raptors and potentially end the series in Game 5 or at home in Game 6. Deron Williams, for one, knows how much of an advantage it is playing at home, as he told Mike Mazzeo of ESPN:
"That's part of playing at home," he said. "You know, the crowd gets into it [after] hustle plays, big shots and dunks. We feed off them, they feed off us, so I thought our crowd was great tonight and they'll continue to be great."
The crowd will be great for Game 4, surely. Now, the team has to match that intensity.
Houston Rockets vs. Portland Trail Blazers
Perhaps you've sensed a theme in this article. That theme is a simple one—the lower-seeded team that currently has the advantage in a series should win Game 4 to keep home-court advantage in the series. The Trail Blazers are the third team to find themselves in that position.
But it's more than that for Portland. They were an overtime away from leading 3-0. All three of these games have been tight, high-scoring affairs that could have gone to either team. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard have taken turns being brilliant, though Omer Asik slowed down the former in Game 3.
The point is this—Portland's grip on this series after the first two games wasn't as tight as it appeared, and Houston's Game 3 win breathed life into the team. The winner of Game 4 will almost surely seize control of the series, if only because a matchup that has been so tight and evenly matched could swing on whoever has the momentum at the moment.
And at the moment, this shot has tipped the scales back in Houston's favor for the time being (via ESPN):
Portland let a 3-0 lead slip through their fingers. If they can't win Game 4, you get the feeling they might just let the series slip through their fingers, too.