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One Key Question for Every Team Trailing 3-2 in the Second Round

Can the Celtics solve the case of their missing defense? Is Game 6 Klay waiting in the wings for the Warriors? NBA fans will be treated to four Game 6s in the next two nights, and these are the questions that will determine whether these series get to Game 7.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The two best words in sports, the adage goes, are “Game 7.” But Game 6s are no slouches, with built-in stakes and two desperate teams: one fighting to survive, the other to avoid being pushed to Game 7.

Some of the NBA’s most dramatic and memorable moments of the past decade came from Game 6 classics, when the trailing team eked out another chance. Ray Allen’s shot against the Spurs. Klay Thompson’s explosion against the Thunder. Houston’s improbable comeback against the Clippers.

And lo and behold, the second round of the 2023 playoffs has blessed us with four Game 6s over the next couple of nights. So as NBA fans settle onto their couches for another 10 hours of hopefully exhilarating playoff basketball, here is one key question that Boston, Phoenix, New York, and Golden State need to answer as they all try to win Game 6 and bring those clichéd best words in sports into play.

Boston Celtics: Can they guard the 76ers’ pick-and-rolls?

Alternatively: Where did the Celtics’ defense go? Boston ranked second in the regular season in defensive rating, after ranking first last season with largely the same rotation. But the Celtics struggled to contain the Hawks over the final four games of their surprisingly tight first-round series, and have found similar difficulty guarding the 76ers through five games (including one without MVP Joel Embiid).

Granted, both the Hawks and 76ers boasted top-10 offenses in the regular season, and Boston has held its two playoff opponents to an average offensive rating that’s 2.1 points worse per 100 possessions than those opponents managed in the regular season. But other than the Suns, every other team that’s still alive in the playoffs has done better by this relative measure. The Lakers, for comparison, lead the way as they’ve held their opponents to an average offensive rating that’s 7.9 ticks worse than their regular-season figures.

Remaining Playoff Teams by Defensive Performance

Team Opponents' Relative ORtg
Team Opponents' Relative ORtg
Lakers -7.9
Warriors -6.4
Knicks -6.1
Heat -4.2
76ers -4.4
Nuggets -2.8
Celtics -2.1
Suns +2.0

The Celtics were closer to that elite level last postseason, as they held their opponents to an average offensive rating that was 5.7 points below their regular-season outputs. Marcus Smart is still here. So is Derrick White, just named to an All-Defensive team. So are Robert Williams III (albeit playing less against the 76ers), Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Al Horford—all plus defenders. And yet, the Celtics still can’t slow the 76ers when it counts.

Boston’s main problem is an inability to corral the simplest staple of basketball offense. All of the 76ers’ main pick-and-roll combinations are producing 10 to 20 percent more points than an average pick-and-roll, according to analysis of Second Spectrum data.

76ers Pick-and-Rolls Against Boston

Ballhandler Screener Direct Picks Points Per Pick
Ballhandler Screener Direct Picks Points Per Pick
James Harden Joel Embiid 60 1.12
James Harden Paul Reed 46 1.21
Tyrese Maxey Joel Embiid 28 1.11
James Harden P.J. Tucker 18 1.12
League Average League Average n/a 1.01

That chart isn’t based on a tremendously large sample. But the Celtics are only one game away from elimination; small samples are all they have left. And what that chart shows is that practically whenever a big sets a screen for James Harden or Tyrese Maxey, the 76ers get a good shot.

Boston hasn’t varied its pick-and-roll coverage much, and the adjustments it has tried—like ceding space for pocket passes from Harden to Embiid—have largely backfired. The Celtics need to figure out how to leverage all their stout defenders into actual stops—perhaps by swarming Embiid more, or bringing even more aggressive help off Tucker, or overplaying Harden to drive—or they won’t have a chance to avenge last season’s Finals loss.

Phoenix Suns: Might a Sun, any Sun, other than Devin Booker and Kevin Durant score?

Here is a list of every time a Suns player other than Booker or Durant has scored at least 15 points in their second-round series against the Nuggets:

  • Landry Shamet, with 19 points in Game 4

That’s the whole list. Deandre Ayton’s tallied 14 points exactly, on three separate occasions, but Shamet is the only Phoenix role player who’s reached 15 even once. Heck, aside from Ayton and the injured Chris Paul, this one Shamet game is the only time all series another Sun has scored in double figures.

Meanwhile, the Suns’ opponent’s stars have received much more help from their friends. Aside from Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, Nuggets players with at least 15 points in a game in this series include Aaron Gordon (twice), Michael Porter Jr. (twice), and Bruce Brown, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has also reached double figures three times, maxing out at 14 points.

It’s not easy to win games with only two legitimate offensive threats, especially when the other team has four or five playing at a time. Part of the Suns’ problem is a broader lack of depth stemming from their trade for Durant—a worthy sacrifice, perhaps, given his superstardom, but a sacrifice regardless. Part of the problem is that other in-season acquisitions like T.J. Warren and Terrence Ross haven’t moved the needle. Yet another part of the problem is Paul’s injury, though the 38-year-old point guard hadn’t looked particularly dangerous as a scorer this postseason. And another part of the problem is that Ayton, the no. 1 pick, remains frustratingly passive and resistant to the modern game; because he doesn’t take 3-pointers and rarely draws fouls—he averages only 2.3 free throw attempts per game in the playoffs, as a starting center playing 30-plus minutes per game—he doesn’t accumulate easy extra points that most big men hoard.

The Suns need to resolve some of those problems, whether through a breakout shooting game from Ross or a powerful performance from Ayton. Booker and Durant are incredible offensive talents producing at near Shaq-and-Kobe levels, but they can’t beat the Nuggets all by themselves.

Phoenix can’t feasibly expect Booker—who started 4-for-4 in Game 5 but shot just 4-for-15 the rest of the way, perhaps on tired legs—to replicate his ridiculous performances from Games 3 and 4 twice more. And even when Booker was as hot as, well, the actual sun, his team probably wouldn’t have scored enough to win Game 4 to even the series at 2-2 if not for Shamet’s flurry of fourth-quarter 3s.

New York Knicks: Will the starting backcourt have to play 96 combined minutes three games in a row?

The Knicks staved off elimination at home on Wednesday night, beating the Heat 112-103 as coach Tom Thibodeau entered true desperation mode. Starting guards Jalen Brunson and Quentin Grimes both played all 48 minutes—and the Knicks needed every one of them because the Heat pulled within two points down the stretch even though the Knicks were at home, Miami wasn’t stretching its best players’ minutes, and the Heat were bricking plenty of open 3s.

While Thibodeau’s gambit worked for one game, he’d be hard-pressed to repeat it. Nobody has played all 48 minutes of a non-overtime game even twice in the same postseason—let alone twice in a row—since, incidentally, Jimmy Butler did so five times in the 2013 playoffs. (Butler’s coach, of course, was Thibodeau.) And Butler in 2013 and LeBron James in 2006 are the only players this century to play 48 minutes in three non-overtime games in a row.

Can Brunson and Grimes possibly handle that kind of workload given that neither of them is built like Butler or James? Brunson was brilliant offensively in Game 5, scoring 38 points on 22 shots, but he didn’t sustain that intensity on defense, where he frequently lost his man for open 3s. And Grimes has proved himself an essential figure for the Knicks—a better option to start against the Heat than Josh Hart because of his shooting ability—but was injured just two weeks ago and came up limping after a play toward the end of Game 5.

In other words, the Knicks survived one elimination game. But they’re in deep trouble if they need to rely on 96 combined minutes from their starting backcourt to do so a second time, and again a third.

Golden State Warriors: Is Game 6 Klay ready to emerge?

Like the Knicks, the Warriors also staved off elimination on Wednesday night, defeating the Lakers 121-106 in perhaps—depending on what happens in Game 6 on Friday, and then what happens in the summer transaction window—the last home game for the Curry-Thompson-Green trio. The most important question coming out of that game is whether Anthony Davis will play on Friday after the Lakers star left the floor in a wheelchair following a blow to the head.

Yet with Davis’s status uncertain (though reportedly, those around him are optimistic), we can focus on a strategic question as well. The Warriors won Game 5 despite an average—by his ludicrously high standards—Steph Curry game because the team’s depth shone at home. Andrew Wiggins scored 25 points, Draymond Green added 20 as he hunted his own shot more than normal, and Gary Payton II contributed 13 as he remained in the starting lineup.

Thompson, though, was the lowest-scoring Warriors starter, with only 10 points, as the second Splash Brother suffered his third off game in a row. Since shooting 8-of-11 from distance in the Warriors’ blowout win in Game 2, Thompson has averaged just 11 points per game on abysmal 30 percent shooting from the field (33 percent on 3s).

Since he missed two seasons because of a pair of horrible leg injuries, Thompson is no longer the ace defender he was during the initial stages of the Warriors dynasty; now, he needs to make his 3s to be a meaningful contributor. He hasn’t consistently held up that end of the bargain against the Lakers.

But given Thompson’s history of Game 6 excellence and his ability to flip a switch and emerge from a slump, the Warriors still have ample reason to count on him. Just last postseason, the Warriors were the team up 3-2 in the second round, as they hoped to obviate a Game 7 against the Grizzlies. And Thompson, who had shot just 29 percent on 3-pointers in the first five games of the series, led the way with 30 points and eight made 3s as Golden State advanced.