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5-on-5: Game 6 stakes, Finals favorites and bold predictions

What's the most exciting Game 6 matchup, and what will happen in Round 2?

Our NBA Insiders answer the big questions and make bold predictions before three pivotal games tip off on Friday night.


1. Which Game 6 are you most excited to watch?

Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: There is a common-sense pull toward the Thunder's incredible second-half run in Game 5 being fool's gold, the product of a white-hot Russell Westbrook spurt plus some unfortunate foul trouble. I can see that.

But what if it isn't? Playoff series have turned on less. And while I expect the Jazz to be great in their building in a closeout game, I recognize the Thunder's potential combined with a new pressure that exists on Utah now.

André Snellings, ESPN Fantasy: Cavs at Pacers. LeBron James turned in a highlight reel to lead the Cavs to that controversial Game 5 win, and the Pacers are upset that goaltending wasn't called.

But the Cavaliers have struggled all series long, and if the Pacers win at home they have a legitimate shot to sneak out the series win. If the Cavs still have their usual championship aspirations, they really need to end this series on Friday.

Bobby Marks, ESPN Insider: Oklahoma City at Utah, the game that has the most storylines of the first round so far. Does the momentum from Game 5 carry over for Oklahoma City? What about the future of Paul George if the Thunder lose? If the Thunder can get off to a good start and take the crowd out of the game from the start, will Utah revert to the same team we saw in the fourth quarter on Wednesday night? If it does, this series could be over even before the Jazz get back to Oklahoma City for a Game 7.

Marc J. Spears, The Undefeated: While all three have outstanding storylines, OKC at Utah is the most exciting to watch. You have Westbrook and George trying to keep the Thunder alive. You have the Jazz trying to move on from a disaster of a possible series-ending Game 5, when they blew a 25-point third-quarter lead. How will rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell respond? What Westbrook will show up? Man, let's tip this one up now.

Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: I think Thunder-Jazz is the most compelling Game 6 from a strategic standpoint. Oklahoma City changed the series in the second half of Game 5 by switching more pick-and-rolls and playing harder on defense. According to Second Spectrum tracking, Utah's shot quality dropped from a 55.3 percent qSQ in the first half (quantified shot quality, the effective field goal percentage we'd expect from average players taking those shots based on location, type and nearby defenders) to 51.6 percent after halftime.

Forcing Jazz misses and turnovers allowed the Thunder to get out in transition, which, along with Rudy Gobert's absence, allowed Westbrook to get high-value shots around the rim. I'm fascinated to see whether Oklahoma City can keep it up in Game 6, particularly with Westbrook expending so much energy; he played the entire second half for the first time since Game 7 of the 2016 Western Conference finals, per ESPN Stats & Information research.


2. Who has the most at stake?

Spears: Westbrook has the most at stake because he is the reigning MVP of the league who is trying to convince George to stick around. It's hard to imagine PG wanting to stay in Oklahoma City if the Thunder get eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Westbrook needs to push this series to seven games.

Pelton: Westbrook and the Thunder. I think the Cavaliers probably have more at stake in this series, but Friday is no longer a must-win for them. It is for Oklahoma City, which is hoping to re-sign George this summer. For Westbrook, this series has become yet another referendum on his style of play and whether it can succeed in the playoffs. Game 5 offered wildly different answers in the first and second halves.

Snellings: The Thunder, because if they lose then they're out, with huge questions about whether George will re-sign with them in the offseason. Overall, the Cavaliers have the most at stake for the rest of the round, because if they lose in the first round there's a real chance that they lose LeBron this offseason.

Marks: Oklahoma City. Losing would not only have the Thunder waiting two months for a decision from George, but also put the front office in a position where it would have to justify the cost next season for a team that lost in the first round. That cost could see Oklahoma City paying $270 million in salary and luxury tax, a substantial figure for a team that couldn't get out of the first round.

Windhorst: Because of the George free agency and because they're in an elimination game, it's the Thunder. Not that a win would change everything. By now, George has formed his opinions. It's more of a keep-hope-alive situation. Of course, the Cavs face the same thing, but they're not in an elimination game.

3. What is the most compelling possible second-round series?

Pelton: Houston-Utah. Rockets-Thunder would offer more compelling storylines, including the reigning MVP against presumptive 2017-18 MVP James Harden, Westbrook's former teammate. But Houston and Utah would be more compelling from a basketball standpoint. It would pit a defense designed to take away high-value shots against the offense that generates them far more often than any other in the league. I'd love to find out who wins that battle.

Marks: Philadelphia versus Boston. We'd get to see the future of the NBA on display for two weeks and the rekindling of a rivalry. The series would feature five players who ranked on our list of the 25 best players under 25 -- and a 76ers team that many feel could reach an NBA Finals versus a Celtics roster that has outperformed expectations without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.

Windhorst: Pelicans-Warriors holds a lot of promise. Questions surround Stephen Curry's health, plus we have the blooming of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. For the past couple of years we've been waiting for Davis to grow into the type of monster who could challenge the power structure in the West. Here is his first real chance.

Spears: Cleveland versus Toronto. LeBron versus the East's top-seeded Raptors. The return of Curry will have a lot of eyes on Warriors versus Pelicans, but it's time for the Raptors to be more than just a regular-season wonder and they need to get past LeBron in the second round to do that. An early ousting would be devastating for Toronto.

Snellings: We already have it. The Pelicans, with the way they dominated their first-round series, are a compelling matchup against the defending champion Warriors, who hope to bring back the injured Curry soon. Of the remaining matchups, the most intriguing might be a battle with three of the unicorn-like young superstars, with Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the Bucks against Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the Sixers.


4. What is your bold prediction for the second round?

Snellings: It was once considered a given that Cleveland would represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals for the fourth straight year, but the Cavaliers struggled in the second half of the season and have continued to scuffle in the playoffs. With that said, I still expect them to hold on through this round and also win their second-round matchup against the winner of the Raptors-Wizards.

Windhorst: I don't make predictions. But I'm going to watch how the Pelicans handle themselves Saturday; that's an interesting set of circumstances.

Spears: Not sure if it's a bold prediction since the Raptors are the higher seed, but Toronto will finally figure out a way to knock off James to make it to the Eastern Conference finals. We The North finally gets through with a big series from DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.

Pelton: The Pelicans, who led the league by shooting an effective 58.0 percent in the first round (treating 3s as 1.5 field goals to account for their added value), will do no better than the league average of 52.1 percent against the Warriors in the second round.

Marks: Cleveland will lose to Toronto. Yes, I am betting against LeBron James. James' string of seven consecutive trips to the NBA Finals will end in Toronto and start the rumor mill about his future six weeks before free agency. The first-round series versus Indiana taught us that despite James' heroics, this Cleveland team has flaws that plagued it during the regular season.


5. Who are your picks to make the Finals?

Windhorst: I couldn't say now. But this I can: No matter how it may look two weeks in, almost every team faces adversity at some point in a playoff run. How they handle it often will define their season. And having experience in dealing with adversity is so often a difference-maker in who can overcome it.

Snellings: Before the season began, I predicted that the Rockets would defeat the Warriors to represent the West in the Finals, and I'm sticking with that. I think the 76ers are the best team in the East right now, but their inexperience will be their weakness. Despite Cleveland's current struggles, I'm staying with the Cavaliers.

Marks: Two teams not named Cleveland or Golden State. It is hard to bet against the Cavaliers and Warriors, but I am sticking with the top seeds, Toronto and Houston. As both teams have proved early in the playoffs, having home court gives them a distinct advantage over the field.

Pelton: Philadelphia and Golden State. Nobody in the East is playing at a higher level right now than the 76ers, and they have the cleanest path to the conference finals. On the other side, I go back and forth between the Rockets and Warriors daily. Who ultimately wins a potential conference finals matchup may hinge on the health of Curry and Luc Mbah a Moute.