The NBA seemed headed for the most epic of playoff weekends. Five of the league's first-round series were already ticketed for Game 7s.
The Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers seemed set to make it an even six. These two teams, which had traded blows through the first five games of their series, played to a 96-96 draw through the first 47-and-a-half minutes. With the shot clock winding down, James Harden launched a 19-foot jumper off the dribble, only to see the ball bounce off the iron.
Luckily for the Rockets, the rebound wound up in the hands of Chandler Parsons, who snuck the ball back up onto the glass and through the hoop to put Houston up 98-96 with just 0.9 second left in the game.
Ball game, right? Tell that to Damian Lillard.
The Blazers' All-Star guard, who spent his second season as a pro bolstering his reputation as the league's newest crunch-time killer, took the inbounds pass from Nicolas Batum and launched a 25-footer that left his hand just before the buzzer sounded. The shot went splashing through the net, sending Rip City into a frenzy and the Blazers into the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
The Friday action that preceded the sixth and final Portland-Houston thriller wasn't too shabby, either. The evening began with the Brooklyn Nets recovering from their failed comeback in Game 5 by pounding the Toronto Raptors at the Barclays Center, 97-83, with Alan Anderson assuming Shaun Livingston's spot in Jason Kidd's starting lineup.
It continued with Monta Ellis (29 points, 12 in the fourth quarter) outdueling Tony Parker (22 points, 13 in the final frame) to lift the Dallas Mavericks to a 113-111 home win over the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of a series that, at the outset, was supposed to be about the umpteenth battle between Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, two all-time greats and long-time rivals.
And to think, the best may be yet to come, starting with this weekend's March Madness-like slate of do-or-die dances, and the first Game 7 triple-header in NBA playoff history.
According to TNT NBA analyst Shaquille O'Neal, it is going to be the "Best Saturday ever."
At 5:30 p.m. ET, the Indiana Pacers welcome the Atlanta Hawks back to Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Pacers spent much of the 2013-14 season talking about the importance of snagging the No. 1 seed and the home-court advantage that it afforded, and managed to back their way into it in the end.
Chances are, though, they didn't anticipate having to fall back on it this early in the playoffs—certainly not against a Hawks squad that finished six games under .500 after losing Josh Smith to the Detroit Pistons last summer and Al Horford to another devastating pectoral injury during the season.
Atlanta's combination of quick, penetrating guards and floor-stretching shooters has pushed Indy's vaunted defense to the limit. Roy Hibbert, the anchor of the Pacers' stingy unit, has been marginalized by the perimeter comfort of the Hawks' bigs, who've exposed Hibbert's slow-footedness on the defensive end. Through the first six games, Hibbert's averaged just 4.0 points and 3.2 rebounds in 20.3 minutes, including back-to-back games without a single point.
The last All-Star to go scoreless in consecutive playoff games? Jim King of the San Francisco Warriors back in 1968.
Indy, though, can stave off the effects of its late-season collapse by following up a huge Game 6 victory in Atlanta with another one at home in Game 7. As Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal noted after Game 5, that effort would be better off with Hibbert on the bench.
Glue his 7'2" frame to the pine and don't allow him to remove the warmups he wears before the opening tip until the Pacers are back in the locker room. If he wants to stand up and cheer, that's perfectly fine, but he shouldn't be able to cheer any of his own contributions.
Another strong effort from Paul George, who's been superb for the Pacers (22.8 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.5 steals), would go a long way toward that end as well.
Once those two teams are done tangling, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Memphis Grizzlies will get down to business at Chesapeake Energy Arena at 8 p.m. ET. The Thunder evened the series at three games apiece by blasting the Grizzlies in Memphis on Thursday, 104-84.
Kevin Durant looked like anything but "Mr. Unreliable," dropping 36 points and grabbing 10 boards while attacking Memphis' smothering defense and getting out in transition. Russell Westbrook did his part to stuff the stat sheet (25 points, nine boards, five assists, three steals), and Reggie Jackson (16 points) provided a spark off the bench.
At this point, OKC seems like a shoe-in to complete its own comeback from a 3-2 series deficit. Aside from hosting Game 7, the Thunder will benefit from the Grizzlies' grim misfortune. Mike Conley will attempt to play through a hamstring strain.
Which is more than Zach Randolph will be able to do. He won't even be in the building—his punishment from the league office for hitting OKC rookie and serial instigator Steven Adams in the jaw with a closed fist in Game 6.
In essence, that leaves the Grizzlies with 70 percent of their usual starting capacity against a Thunder squad that can already smell blood in the water. Barring a miraculous outing from Marc Gasol and/or a shocking performance or two from the Grizzlies' reserves, look for OKC to move one step closer to what they surely hope will be the franchise's second Western Conference crown in the last three years.
Injuries will factor prominently into Saturday's 10:30 p.m. ET nightcap, as well. The Los Angeles Clippers will return to Staples Center with Chris Paul hobbling around on a gimpy hamstring of his own. The Golden State Warriors, on the other hand, will have to hope that Jermaine O'Neal's bruised knee won't further impair a front line that was thinned out by Andrew Bogut's rib injury before the playoffs even began.
Somehow, that hasn't stopped the Dubs from more than holding their own on the boards. They've outrebounded the Clippers overall (51.2 percent), in part by recovering a staggering 32 percent of their own misses, per NBA.com.
This, despite L.A. sporting a pair of double-double machines up front in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
If Paul is impaired in any significant way, Golden State could dominate the battle of the backcourts as well. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have both performed unevenly in this series, to put it mildly. The less Paul can do to disrupt Curry's work with the ball, the easier it'll be for the Dubs' All-Star to create for himself and get Thompson the looks he needs to catch fire.
Not that the Clippers are entirely screwed if CP3 isn't himself. Griffin and Jamal Crawford, the league's latest Sixth Man of the Year, are bot capable of taking on the ball-handling and passing burdens that Paul would normally bear, as they proved during the five weeks he missed on account of a shoulder injury between January and February.
Come Sunday, the Nets and the Raptors will be back at it in Toronto at 1 p.m. ET, followed by what could be the final Texas two-step between Duncan and Nowitzki as the Spurs host the Mavs at 3:30 p.m. ET.
That should afford basketball fans, sports fans and, well, fans of the dramatic everywhere ample opportunity to soak up some excitement ahead of Cinco de Mayo. The same goes for the Miami Heat and the Washington Wizards, both of whom have been resting up since dispatching the Charlotte Bobcats and the Chicago Bulls, respectively, earlier this week.
And, thanks to Lillard's heroics, the Blazers, too, will get to scout their potential second-round opponents from the comfort of their couches.
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