Roundtable: What to watch heading into massive Game 6 matchups

The first round of the 2024 NBA playoffs has been nothing short of exciting, giving us everything from sweeps to back-and-forth battles on both sides of the bracket.

In the Western Conference, the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder have already secured spots in the second round, with the Nuggets and Wolves starting their series on Saturday in Denver. The Dallas Mavericks and LA Clippers, meanwhile, continued their seesaw series as the Mavericks dominated Game 5 at Arena on Wednesday.

Also Wednesday, the Boston Celtics became the first Eastern Conference team to reach the next round, ousting the Miami Heat in Game 5. The remaining three spots are up for grabs, as the New York Knicks will have a second chance to close out the Philadelphia 76ers after an electrifying Game 5 comeback led by a 46-point performance from Tyrese Maxey on Tuesday.

Our NBA insiders break down the biggest storylines to watch going into these principal Game 6 matchups as we round out the second week of the NBA playoffs.

MORE: Everything to know about the playoffs | Offseason guides for every team


milteam vs ind

If Giannis and Dame return, can the Bucks still win this series?

Thursday, 6:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

With a win in Game 5, the Bucks kept their season alive for at least one more game and in turn gave their star duo extra time to return to the floor. Both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard are “very close,” to returning, Bucks coach Doc Rivers said after Game 5, indicating the Bucks could have help in Indianapolis.

Antetokounmpo has not played in this series, sidelined for the past three weeks with a calf strain. Lillard has been out since Game 3 with an Achilles strain.

Yet, the Bucks became the first team in NBA history to win a playoff game without their top two scorers from the regular season, and they did so in convincing fashion. Milwaukee cut off Indiana on the fast break — winning the transition points battle 11-7 for the first time all series against the Pacers’ second-ranked offense — and smothered All-Star guard Tyrese Haliburton with double-teams.

Lillard and Antetokounmpo were scheduled for a workout ahead of Game 6. The question for Milwaukee, even if it gets one or both of its superstar duo back on the floor, is whether it will be too late in the series for it to make a difference.

The Bucks must win an elimination game on the road to a team that also bested them four of five times during the regular season. But a veteran Bucks player believes they have given themselves a chance by extending the series, letting the Pacers know they will not go home easily.

“We know what we’re capable of. We know what we have in the locker room and we have guys that compete,” Bucks forward Bobby Portis said after Game 5.

“There wasn’t any weight on our shoulders. I think there’s more weight on theirs.”

— Jamal Collier

nyteam vs phi

The margins will decide whether an epic series goes the distance

Thursday, 9 p.m. ET (TNT)

When it comes to this battle for I-95, where should we begin?

There have been two miraculous comebacks. The Knicks (Game 2) and 76ers (Game 5) rallied from five and six-point deficits, respectively, with under 30 seconds remaining. The Knicks prevailed in regulation, while the Sixers did so in overtime.

There have been scoring bursts. A hobbled Joel Embiid dropped 50 points in Game 3, Jalen Brunson went for 47 in Game 4 and Tyrese Maxey finished with 46 in his clutch Game 5 performance. Through five games and 245 total minutes, the 76ers, despite trailing the series 3-2, have outscored the Knicks by two points.

There are critical coaching decisions. Will Nick Nurse continue to play Embiid, still limited by his knee injury, the entire second half?

This first-round slugfest has produced a bit of everything — even Knicks fans loudly making their presence felt in Philly — with each game a reminder that the only constant in this series is that every contest will come down to the final possessions, hustle plays, or frantic closing moments.

— Tim Bontemps

cleteam vs orl

Can the Cavaliers generate enough offense on the road?

Friday, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Cleveland has built its advantage behind the league’s seventh-ranked defense, but to close out this series in Orlando, it has to score more. The Cavs finally broke the 100-point mark in Game 5, when Darius Garland raced out to 17 first-quarter points and Donovan Mitchell finished with 28. Max Strus, who had struggled shooting, knocked down four 3-pointers and Marcus Morris Sr. added 12 points off of the bench.

Yes, that game was sealed by an Evan Mobley block — his defensive presence is even more important with Jarrett Allen’s status up in the air — but in the two games the Cavs dropped in Orlando’s Kia Center, they had no answer for scoring runs by the Magic, who had the sixth-best home record in the league during the regular season.

In Game 4, Mitchell went scoreless in the second half, while the Cavs surrendered a 31-5 run in the third quarter and shot just 4-of-17 from 3.

— Kendra Andrews

lacteam vs dal

Will history repeat itself or can the Mavericks lock in?

Friday, 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Luka Doncic didn’t want to hear it, interrupting a reporter’s question as soon as the subject of the Mavericks’ last playoff series against the Clippers was broached.

These teams were in the same position in the 2021 playoffs, when the Mavs took a 3-2 lead in a first-round series and headed home for Game 6. LA won the next two games, eliminating Dallas for the second consecutive season.

“Present. Present,” Doncic insisted after his 35-point, 10-assist performance in the Mavs’ Game 5 blowout win. “Not past.”

Clippers star Paul George, not surprisingly, was much more willing to discuss the recent history between the two teams. He actually made a point to bring it up after what could be the Clippers’ final home game at Arena unless their prior Game 6 road success repeats itself.

“We’ve been here before — going to Dallas, being down 3-2,” George said. “It’s got to be a win, and the only mentality we have is to try to go get a win in Dallas.”

In that instance three years ago, Kawhi Leonard carried the Clippers to a Game 6 victory. He matched his playoff career high with 45 points and played smothering defense on Doncic down the stretch in that game.

But the Clippers can’t count on that happening again. Leonard hasn’t been available since Game 3 because of persistent inflammation in his right knee, and he isn’t expected to return during this series.

Before this series started, Doncic pointed out another major difference from the other times the Mavs and Clippers met in the playoffs.

“We have Kai,” Doncic said, referring to Kyrie Irving, his championship experienced co-star.

“We’ll get some rest after this one,” Irving said. “Emotions are high, but we just got to be ready for whatever’s going to be thrown at us.”

— Tim MacMahon

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