There are few things in sports more captivating than a team with its back against the wall, and few things in the NBA more captivating than an entire slate of teams in exactly that position. Friday's schedule is packed with four series on the brink of completion -- Grizzlies-Clippers, Knicks-Celtics, Thunder-Rockets and Pacers-Hawks -- with each of the eight teams in action desperate for every possession and every break in the game.
Naturally, such an urgent occasion brings a host of individuals into the limelight -- those who hold the potential to dictate the course of Friday's Game 6s and, by extension, that of their respective series. Here is a collection of those on the spot, and the roles they figure to play in deciding their teams' fates.
Chris Paul, Clippers
One prevailing -- and fair -- criticism of the Clippers' offense is that the entire operation is too dependent on Paul -- that the team tends to idle when the All-NBA point guard isn't scoring or force-feeding assists on every possession. The alternative, frankly, is no longer an option. With Blake Griffin limited by a particularly inopportune ankle sprain, Paul will need to be in kill-mode for every minute he's on the floor. There can be no more energy-saving deference to Chauncey Billups as the primary ball handler, no more indulgence of Caron Butler's creative pursuits and no more reliance on Griffin as the team's central first-quarter scorer. I'm generally opposed to the "take the team on your back" rhetoric, but there's no other choice for the Clippers. Paul will need to be magnificent to keep the Clips scoring against a defense that will be locked on to his every move, as even his 35 points on 24 shots in Game 5 weren't enough to close the gap or negate the Grizzlies' command.
Things should be a bit easier for L.A. if Griffin is able to offer anything whatsoever on Friday. Even relatively empty minutes from the All-Star forward would save the Clippers from the tragic Ronny Turiaf-DeAndre Jordan combination that made an appearance after Griffin's Game 5 departure. Still, Paul will have to be the executor of the Clippers' entire estate for the remainder of this series, be that a single game or more.
Zach Randolph, Grizzlies
Each of the Grizzlies' wins in this series has coincided with a superb showing from Randolph, who has limped through an ankle injury of his own to average 25.3 points and 10.3 rebounds over the last three games. Game 6, by all indications, should bring more of the same. With Griffin's mobility limited, his low base compromised (a tough setback for a post defender) and his minutes likely to be curbed, Randolph should be able to take full advantage of his matchup yet again. The game will also be back in Memphis, where Randolph has shot and rebounded more effectively all season long.
Yet it's one thing to isolate each of these potential advantages and another entirely for Randolph to actually capitalize on them, particularly considering that the Clippers will likely be quick to offer Griffin (and Turiaf) help down low. Randolph will have to strike that careful balance between making his mark and picking his spots -- an equilibrium he's found over the last three games, but one that's nonetheless tricky to maintain.
Coach Mike Woodson, Knicks
Isolation basketball has been an important component of New York's offense all season, but the Knicks are reeling in part because the calibration of those iso sequences has been thrown off over the last few games. The spacing is as good as can be when four players on the court are rendered into standstill shooters/rebounders, I suppose, but Boston's lean toward the strong side of the floor has made it incredibly difficult for Carmelo Anthony to manage anything other than a contested jumper once he faces up in his go-to spots. Because of that, the Knicks are largely living and dying with Anthony's ability to convert those tough shots or draw fouls, ignoring every other successful and stable tenet of their offense in the process.
That has to change, and the man to change it is Woodson. There's plenty of blame and panic to go around in New York, but this is still a team in command, provided that it actually makes Boston's vaunted defense work harder than it has recently. Celtics coach Doc Rivers has trimmed his rotation to essential personnel only, and as a result will lean heavily on the already weary legs of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, as well as five other top-of-the-rotation players. From that perspective, allowing Boston to play a zone against the Knicks' isolations creates the benefit of a sound defensive strategy without much physical cost -- a dream scenario for a team in Boston's situation.
Anthony is great, and the Knicks should work to get him open shots. But let's not pretend that those stale, scripted mini-sets are getting the job done; New York is scoring 12.3 fewer points per 100 possessions in this series than it did during the regular season. Some of that drop-off is to be expected with them playing every game against one of the best defensive teams in the league, but the Knicks are responsible for a good portion of that deficit by oversimplifying and going away from what works most effectively.
Raymond Felton and Anthony have done an awesome job of breaking down the first line of Boston's defense through the high pick-and-roll, but New York often ignores that option while voluntarily settling into a clear-out for Melo. This roster was built on the notion of getting the ball to the right cutters and shooters in the face of overloading defenses, but the Knicks haven't taken the time over the last few games to actually break the Celtics down with the pass. With one single task at hand and ample time in between games for practice and film sessions, New York should be moving the ball more effectively to counter the way Boston sneaks over to Anthony and crowds his driving lanes -- an effort that starts with instruction from Woodson.
Boston's collective offense
The Celtics' scoring efforts have ranged from historically miserable to oddly competent, giving New York far too many chances to close deficits and build leads. They tend to implode for entire quarters (or halves, on more charitable nights) at a time, for a laundry list of reasons that begins with a lack of competent creators. That worry was somewhat addressed by replacing Avery Bradley with the suddenly effective Jason Terry, but there should still be concern over whether this Celtics team can really grind out enough regular scoring to avoid surrendering the emotional edge in this series and stave off elimination. There's no question that Boston seems to have New York on its heels at the moment, but that dynamic could quickly change with an early cold spell, an off-night from a crucial scorer or a recurrence of the turnover woes that plagued the Celtics' offense in the first few games of this series.
There has been definite improvement in the way that Boston shared the ball in Game 5, but this has long been a team whose offense you trust at your own risk. The Celtics may well have enough to eke out another win at home on Friday night, but managing steady offense for two games in a row (and four games overall) may be asking a bit too much of this group.
Kevin Martin and Thabo Sefolosha, Thunder
The Thunder's two complementary wings played a significant role in the season series against the Rockets, as the concerted driving of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook earned open looks for Martin and Sefolosha. Many of those looks have been made available again in this series because of the way Houston's defense has collapsed against Durant's penetration, but in the last three games that pair has combined to hit just 9-of-30 three-point tries -- a decidedly horrid mark for players who provide value, in part, through their perimeter shooting. Sefolosha's struggles are one thing. Martin, though, is too important to OKC's Westbrook-less offense to replicate the three-point, 1-of-10 performance he crippled the Thunder with in Game 5.
Oklahoma City has essentially conceded to going small in this series with the hope that Martin and Sefolosha would be able to stretch the defense and give Durant and Reggie Jackson two decent kick-out options. That just hasn't been the case over the past few games, and that fact stands to threaten the Thunder's playoff livelihood should it continue.
James Harden, Rockets
The Rockets have fared well in this series based on Harden's capacity to match -- or at least approach -- Durant's offensive production. Both are in strangely similar positions now that Westbrook is out, but Harden has something of an edge in that the Rockets have been able to play out the last few games on their terms. Houston is used to operating from Harden's ball-dominant creation at this point in the year, whereas the Thunder are still adjusting to life without one of their primary creators. Beyond that, the Rockets have plenty of experience with smaller lineups given their inconsistencies at power forward, while the Thunder do not.
The Rockets may be young, but they know where to be and how to play in a series like this one. Because of that, Houston's role players have gotten the jump on this series over the last three games, from Chandler Parsons' 27-point outburst to Francisco Garcia's unexpected impact to Patrick Beverley's energetic offerings. The Rockets have a lot going for them as long as Harden can keep pace with his former teammate, making the duel at the center of this matchup even more riveting than it might seem.
Josh Smith, Hawks
Jeff Teague would make a fine choice for this slot as well, but Smith's judgment tends to dictate so much about the way that the Hawks ultimately perform. When he's plugged in (and avoiding unnecessary foul trouble), he dictates the way that Pacers coach Frank Vogel builds his lineups and utilizes his rotation. When Smith is off floating in space, he squanders valuable opportunities against a defense that already closes off so many opportunities. The Hawks' season may continue or conclude based on Smith's prudence.
George Hill, Pacers
No player in this series has more harrowing win/loss (or home/road) splits than Hill, who has been a significant asset for the Pacers in their three home victories and a borderline offensive liability in their two losses. Games 3 and 4 weren't kind to any of the Pacers, really, but Hill's 0-for-9 shooting from beyond the arc and 5-for-23 (21.7 percent) shooting overall proved brutal for an Indiana offense that had trouble creating through any of its usual means. A more productive Hill would go a long way in finally adapting the Pacers' game to the Phillips Arena court. Indiana is still in a good place by virtue of protecting home-court advantage, but the Pacers remain fully capable of closing out the series Friday if players like Hill can contribute in some fashion other than entry passing.