By the end of the night we will know a little bit more about the heart and guts of three of the NBA’s best perimeter players. Could they lead their teams to game 6 victories and force a game 7 to save their season? Or did they succumb to the pressure, moment and/or excellence of their opponent? Fair or unfair, careers are defined by playoff heroics. Lebron James in game 6 at Boston: 45 points, 15 rebounds, 73% shooting. Kobe Bryant in Game 6 at Oklahoma City: 32 points, 7 rebounds, 75% from three. If Paul George and Kevin Durant lose tonight ending their seasons it will be a failure of their leadership. They were supposed to carry their teams to the conference finals. And they did not. On the other hand if Steph Curry loses it will be what was supposed to happen. The Warriors were handicapped from the start having to play without Andrew Bogut. And then this Donald Sterling mess hijacked their first round series. But if all three win, then the stage will be set for dramatic endings over the weekend.
Paul George: His team is on the verge of a historic collapse. It is not unprecedented for a #1 seed to lose to a #8 seed. What has never been happened in NBA history is for a team of Indiana’s dominance on defense to collapse at the first sign of adversity. To make matters worse it was not playoff pressure that brought them to this unholy brink. It was the Pacers themselves. Organizational moves doomed a team thought to have strength. Andrew Bynum came in. Roy Hibbert withered. Evan Turner came in. The offense stalled. Players fought. For everyone who says team chemistry does not matter the Pacers are evidence that is a lie. So here we are at this epic moment in their careers and Pacers history. If they lose to an inferior sub-.500 Hawks team that does nothing more than shoot threes and send Jeff Teague into the paint, a team that could not even win half of their games, a team whose own fans are not buying tickets to see them play in the playoffs, then the Pacers will have completed their fall from grace. Is Paul George to blame? He signed the big contract over the summer and did what every organization fears young players will do once they get paid. He got comfortable. He lost his hunger. He is not the same player of last year. The burden of expectations is rarely smooth. Top players are expected to rise to meet all doubters, to overcome critics. Tonight we will know who the real Paul George is. MVP candidate? Or wing player who could not deliver a first round playoff win?
Kevin Durant: As superlative as Durant is in shooting the ball there are questions about his mental toughness. In the NBA Finals he went out in 5 games. Two years later he may not make it out of the first round. Give credit to Tony Allen for defending him in the nasty way Tony does but, really, KD is seven inches taller. Durant defers a little bit too much. He is just not the sort of player that puts his head down and takes his man to the rim, consequences be damned. His struggles have reignited the debate about Durant being tough enough to lead a team. Is he too nice? Game 6’s are where the superstars have epic performances. In Memphis tonight Durant can’t score 40 and lose, the points don’t matter. He has to sacrifice all parts of himself and do whatever it takes to win. Otherwise the questions will linger. Is he a regular season player? Is he really the second best player NBA? Universally well liked, Kevin Durant won’t take a beating the way Lebron James did when he lost to the Celtics but people will start to wonder. Is Durant who we thought he was? Do nice guys finish last?
Steph Curry: He is playing at home where he is simply amazing. His release is so beautifully quick it is a challenge to interrupt it. So stopping Curry means assault, putting a body on him early and junking up the passing lanes. Curry is such an unselfish player he doesn’t want to take games over all by himself, he doesn’t have that type of ego. But tonight he may have to. The Warriors cannot win without his dominance from the perimeter. He is the oxygen of the team. He gives life to his teammates so they can breathe into their own game confidence and mastery. As Steph goes so does Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson. Adding to the pressure is that the Warriors elimination is probably the end of Mark Jackson’s tenure as coach. The crowd will be in a frenzy like it always is at Oracle, something Steph needs to feed off of. But unlike Paul George and Kevin Durant he has the least amount of pressure. The Warriors are the #6 seed. They were supposed to lose.