Seven guys under glare of Game 7 spotlight

Updated: May 22, 2006, 12:20 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- Two Game 7s in one night. Doesn't happen every day.

A list, then, will be handy to keep track of the men under the brightest spotlight Monday night when the Western Conference breaks its two 3-3 ties in the second round.

Mavericks at Spurs. Clippers at Suns. The seven who must be watched closest when you're watching:

Jason Terry

Jason Terry
Terry is quite lucky. He gets an immediate shot at redemption this time.

Last time?

Surely you haven't forgotten Game 6 of last spring's second round. Terry inexplicably backs off Steve Nash with the Mavs up by three. Nash seizes upon the invitation to hit an OT-forcing triple. Dirk Nowitzki berates Terry and Dallas is eliminated on its own floor.

This time?

This time Terry gets more than five minutes to redeem himself for the unpardonable punch he jabbed at Michael Finley's groin in the closing seconds of Game 5. Making up for the gaffe in the Phoenix series was Terry's fuel all season. A Game 7 in San Antonio isn't the ideal setting for a comeback, but it beats waiting for October after another offseason of self-loathing.

So Game 7 is Terry's opportunity to avoid another long summer. After sitting out this Game 6 through suspension, an undeniable drag on Dallas' offense in a 91-86 defeat that helped cost the Mavs their chance to close out the mighty Spurs at home, will Terry atone?

Steve Nash

Steve Nash
Kobe Bryant and the Lakers are long gone, but the MVP debate is a stubborn one. ESPN's own Scottie Pippen was the latest to publicly question Nash's MVP-worthiness after Phoenix fell Friday night, reminding us that every playoff game Nash plays is going to be seen by someone, somewhere, as a referendum on the MVP voting.

Even if it shouldn't be.

Bring up the stuff about Nash's alleged playoff fades in Dallas if you wish, but you needn't bother because this isn't the same Nash. One big reason the 32-year-old has been able to double the number of point guards in league history to win back-to-back MVP awards -- by joining Magic Johnson on the list -- is his better-than-ever ability to play through a stress fracture in his spine. It's an injury that has plagued the little Canadian for nearly a decade, but as Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo says -- having participated in the drafting of Nash in 1996 before welcoming him back to the desert in 2004 -- Nash has "a totally different body" than he did back then.

The Suns believe Nash's critics would have to be looking much harder for material if the rest of the team wasn't such a mess after a season of health woes. Nash has no backup; Leandro Barbosa is really a small shooting guard.

D'Antoni, meanwhile, is basically down to seven players he's willing to trust in a playoff game (not counting Kurt Thomas; more on him below). Nash, as a result, is playing nearly 41 minutes per game in the playoffs in spite of back, hamstring and ankle issues, up from 35.5 minutes during the regular season.

Nash can't be that bad, either, if the Clippers continue to shadow him with two defenders, which is hardly your standard defensive approach to pass-first points. While clearly lacking the lift and pop in his legs to zip around and make shots -- he's 2-of-18 on 3-pointers and is shooting 38.5 percent from the floor since Game 1 -- Nash is still averaging 16.5 points and 10.8 assists in this series against 2.8 turnovers. Numbers he called "pretty serviceable."

I wish I were that serviceable. I'm also betting that Nash, with three days rest, will operate at multiple notches above serviceable in Game 7 ... not that he has much choice opposite Sam Cassell and Sam I Am's 5-1 record in Game 7s.

Dirk Nowitzki

Dirk Nowitzki
With Tim Duncan moving more and more like the guy Gregg Popovich calls Playoff Timmy, you could argue that Nowitzki has bigger mobility issues after twisting his ankle in Game 3.

You could also argue that Nowitzki has been the best player in the Interstate 35 series.

At worst, he's playing Duncan to a draw heading into the decisive game.

That's especially true when you consider that Nowitzki remains the overwhelming focus of San Antonio's defense. He's almost always accompanied by two Spurs, one in front and one behind or one on each hip. Duncan, meanwhile, continues to draw mostly single coverage from the Mavs, who prefer to surrender 30-plus points to Playoff Timmy in hopes of limiting the other Spurs.

Nowitzki's problem? He's suddenly dealing with a different sort of double-team, with Manu Ginobili -- after a shaky start in these playoffs -- arguably looking more spry than Duncan and Nowitzki. If Game 6 was a reliable guide, Dallas has two game-breakers to worry about.

To counter them, Nowitzki simply has to be huge in Game 7 on the road ... following Dallas' blown Game 6 at home, in which he could have been more aggressive in the fourth quarter. The best players get the biggest slice of blame when teams fail, so Nowitzki -- like his buddy Nash -- has an unappetizing dose waiting if his team does. Fair or not.

Tony Parker

Tony Parker
The Spurs' dream of finally repeating as NBA champions has been saved from the brink of elimination. Twice.

Parker's dream -- helping the Spurs go back-to-back at last by avoiding a repeat of his past playoff pratfalls -- has new life as well.

It wasn't looking so good for Parker on Friday night. The Frenchman missed 12-of-15 shots in a game that, had it ended in defeat, probably would have made him San Antonio's primary scapegoat. Again.

Yet the Spurs survived Game 6, squeezing out a five-point win that gives Parker another chance to replicate his regular-season best. Apart from big starts in Game 4 and 5, we haven't seen much of thatTony.

To his credit, Parker hasn't blamed his various health woes (most notably a hip ailment and twin thigh bruises) for his occasional struggles to outplay Devin Harris or finish in the paint over the long limbs of DeSagana Diop and Erick Dampier.

"You're not going to complain about injuries," he says. "Nobody cares."

Parker has to know people will care, though, if he can't outplay the second-year Harris in these circumstances. They'll care even more in the Alamo City if the Spurs' back-to-back bid ends before the conference finals, as seen in 2000 and in 2004.

What I like to see: Parker invites the pressure. He came into the playoffs, remember, believing that his breakthrough to All-Star status would be somewhat invalidated if he struggled anew at tournament time.

"I know a lot of people can't wait to see if I'm going to do the same thing I did in [past] playoffs," he told me in late March, referring to nights like Monday.

Mike Dunleavy

Mike Dunleavy
The last Game 7 for the Clippers' coach?

Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals. Perhaps you remember it.

Dunleavy's Portland Trail Blazers were up by 15 points in the fourth quarter at Staples Center. The Los Angeles Lakers, without the comeback/Portland collapse that followed, could not have won three consecutive titles.

The stakes aren't as significant in this Game 7, but they are pretty huge when you remember that Dunleavy's new team has been a league laughingstock for more than two decades. One more win would put the Clippers in the West finals for the first time. Say that out loud a few times and you realize how big this is.

Dunleavy naturally would love to be the coach who makes it happen, and doubly so because he was rapped so heavily after each of the Clippers' excruciating losses in this series.

In Game 1, Dunleavy's attempt to give a brief rest to Elton Brand backfired, as did his decision to sit Cassell for nearly 11 minutes of the fourth quarter in Game 3.

Game 5, of course, was the most excruciating loss of them all, with the Clips rallying from 19 points down in the third quarter ... and then falling in double-overtime when Raja Bell, with the Clips bringing rookie Daniel Ewing off the bench and failing to use their foul to give, sank a 3-pointer with the Suns down three at the end of the first OT.

The good news? Dunleavy, so instrumental in changing the culture in Clipperland, has helped resurrect the Clips after each of those body blows. Now we'll see what kind of impact he has in another Game 7, as Cassell is the only Clipper who has ever played in one.

Kurt Thomas

Kurt Thomas
D'Antoni said so before the series and again on the eve of Game 7. It's a lot to ask, in the coach's view, for Thomas to be thrown onto the big stage after three months out with a broken foot.

Then again...

After six games of trying to guard Brand with small forwards, D'Antoni is bound to be tempted to look down his bench and ask Suns athletic trainer Aaron Nelson if it's OK to send Thomas in for a few minutes. Thomas is the Suns' best interior defender -- there isn't even a close second -- and throwing Brand off for just a possession or two couldn't hurt.

How dominant has Brand been? He's averaging 30.0 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks through the series' first six games. The only player in league history to go for 30, 10 and 3 in a seven-game series is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who averaged 37.1 points, 18.7 boards and 3.3 blocks in the Lakers' second-round victory over Golden State in 1977.

Another reason to play Thomas, if he's up to it: Every extra rebound makes a difference against the Clips. In the Suns' three victories, they were outrebounded by just five, one and seven boards. In the Suns' three defeats, L.A.'s rebound edge was +21, +18 and +20.

Jason Terry

Avery Johnson
Johnson doesn't cap our list because of some experience deficit.

He's actually coached just as many Game 7s as Popovich -- both are 1-0 -- and has already won the strategic tug-of-war in this series by moving Harris into the starting lineup and convincing his old coach that the Spurs couldn't keep up unless Pop played the smallest lineups he's ever used.

"I'm sure he's sick of hearing that," Popovich said of the Teacher vs. Student story line. "He's nobody's protégé. He's doing quite well on his own."

So why is Avery on this list?

Because no Game 7 coach, including the two working Sunday's Detroit-Cleveland decider, had bigger team-psyche repairs to make over the weekend than the Lil' General.

The Cavs also lost Game 6 at home, but the Cavs, deep down, never had the Mavs' expectations. You have to believe Cleveland's ability to take the Pistons to seven games depended at least a little on the fact that coach Mike Brown's Cavs faced zero pressure in that series. Detroit, meanwhile, was supposed to win in a four-rout sweep and tightened up when it didn't happen.

Johnson's team, by contrast, faced the biggest emotional rebound of any Game 6 loser. The Mavs know that, even without the suspended Terry, they squandered a glorious opportunity to close out the state's longtime champs. On their floor.

Can the Mavs rebound?

"The coach doesn't have any fear," Johnson says.

No one is questioning the coach. Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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