The destruction of the Pacers and Thunder as we now know them was pushed back for at least two days thanks to clutch performances from Mr. MVP, his sidekick Mr. Irrational Confidence and Mr. I’m figuring out how to handle being a star.
In what really shouldn’t be a surprise Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Paul George asserted themselves in a do-or-die situation. These are three of the top-15 players in a talent rich league. These are three players who fill the role of either a transcendent star, or the second best player who would easily be the best player on a middle class team, which are two roles that have to be filled in order to win an NBA championship.
We can debate until the bell has to be rung concerning George’s place among the transcendent stars in the Association, but I’m willing to put my money that PG is much closer to the player we saw during the Pacers run to the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals and the opening stretch of this season, than the player who looked like he lost his way during the Pacers mediocre jog to the playoffs.
In Indiana’s survive and advance conquest, George was only one part of a much bigger equation. Frank Vogel all but pulled the plug on Roy Hibbert making any sort of impact in the final two games of this series as the big fella only played 12 minutes. Chris Copeland played 18 minutes. Ian Mahinmi played 23 (like Hibbert, he also failed to record a point). C.J. Watson played 27. Evan Turner was a DNP-CD (WTF!). Game 6 marked the momentous occasion of Vogel submitting to the small ball gods and reaping the benefits thanks to a veteran performance from David West.
Make no mistake though, Atlanta will not go away quietly. When George suffered his fourth foul with just over five minutes remaining in the third, Jeff Teague took over the rest of the quarter (he scored 12 points with George on the bench and gave the Hawks a three point lead going into the fourth). The Pacers were also extremely fortunate that the Hawks only managed to shoot just over 25% from the three point line (9-of-35). Most of those looks were the kind of wide open shots that can swing games, but I guess asking Mike Scott to go on-fire twice in a series is just too much.
The Pacers are in for another slobberknocker on Saturday as it just doesn’t appear Indiana is capable of putting a team away when it needs to be sent home for the summer. Give Mike Budenholzer credit, this Atlanta team has shown the type of balls needed to upset a one seed, but they need to be hot from behind the line if they’re going to become the fifth eight seed in the history of the league to upset a one seed.
While the Pacers slogged through a Game 6 victory on the road, the Oklahoma City Thunder flipped the script on their first round series against the Memphis Grizzlies. Scott Brooks inserted Caron Butler to the starting lineup over Thabo Sefalosha, which was great! It showed that Brooks is capable of making a switch when he has his back against the wall, but unlike Vogel’s decision to play small, Brooks’ starting lineup decision didn’t change the outcome of this series. Those decisions were left to Durant and Westbrook.
Kevin Durant’s performance was like the JV version of LeBron’s legendary performance in Game 6 of the 2012 ECF in Boston. Durant set the tone early by penetrating and scoring. He racked up a double digit point total before Dave Joerger could insert Tony Allen. Allen could have multiplied five times like a Dr.Robotnik monster in Sonic 2 and it still wouldn’t have helped the Grizzlies. The only knock on Durant was his 0-for-6 performance from beyond the arc, which brings him to a terrible 12-for-48 (25%) total from deep in the first round.
Westbrook actually looked like he played in a speed he was comfortable with, which is a welcomed change in this series. There have been so many times when the Thunder’s offense has appeared to move about five steps too quick against the Grizzlies, but in Game 6 OKC moved at the right tempo and it forced the Grizzlies to play a type of offensive game this grit-and-grind team simply isn’t built for.
Memphis also isn’t built to survive without Mike Conley, which might be the case on Saturday. Starting Beno Udrih is obviously a massive drop off from Conley, but I’ll be interested to see how Joerger uses James Johnson in small ball lineups if Conley can’t go. A Udrih-Allen-Miller-Johnson-Gasol lineup is interesting, but who knows if that lineup can do anything offensively outside of a Mike Miller three pointer.
Durant and Westbrook made a statement in Game 6. It’s easy to envision a repeat performance from these two in Game 7, but the same can’t be said for the Pacers. If Indiana is going to have a second round date with the Washington Wizards, they’re going to have to survive another game of adversity because the Hawks are going to have the lead during a stretch of Game 7. Can they answer the bell one more time in this series or will the detonator button (finally) be pressed?
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