Monday, December 17 – Houston Rockets (11 – 11) vs. New York Knicks (18 – 5)
Where Lin-sanity began! Jeremy Lin makes his return to MSG riding the confidence of a 38-point outburst against the Spurs (Dec. 10), where he nailed four 3-pointers. This matchup pits two of the top 3-point shooting teams in the NBA against each other. The Knicks and Rockets rank first and third respectively in threes made. James Harden and Lin are the #1 duo in the NBA with 3.6 steals per game. The Knicks will combat that duo with the lowest number of turnovers in the NBA.
Keys to Victory: On this date six years ago, Gilbert Arenas dropped 60 points in a win over the Lakers. 25 years ago, Michael Jordan scored 52 in a win over the Cavaliers. While those gaudy totals will not be necessary, a 40-point game from Harden (or Lin) will go a long way towards a Houston victory. For the Knicks, they’ll need to control the tempo of the game. If they can keep the pace closer to what they’re used to (ranked 24th in the NBA), rather than the Rockets’ pace (#1), then they’ll be able to keep Houston’s point total under 100. New York opponents average 93 points when playing in MSG, while Houston ranks 3rd in the NBA with 104.1 points per game.
Prediction: New York wins 114 – 99.
Tuesday, December 18 – San Antonio Spurs (19 – 6) vs. Denver Nuggets (12 – 12)
The Spurs play the Celtics on Saturday, travel to Oklahoma City Thunder for a Conference final rematch on Monday, then travel overnight to the Mile High City to face the Nuggets less than 24 hours later. San Antonio destroyed Denver earlier this season in a 126 – 100 thrashing. If the Nuggets weren’t already motivated by that early season beatdown, they should also be confident to be facing a road-weary Spurs squad.
Keys to Victory: Assuming Gregg Popovich wants to avoid another fine and plays all of his starters, the Spurs bench will need to contribute a significant amount to help their aging veterans. In their previous match, San Antonio’s bench nailed 11 3-pointers, led by Manu Ginobili’s five treys. For the Nuggets, they’ll need more from their starters. That means more rebounding from Kenneth Faried (only 5 in the previous game vs. Spurs), Ty Lawson (-29 vs. Spurs), and Kosta Koufos (18 minutes – two points and two rebounds vs. Spurs).
Prediction: San Antonio wins 95 – 94.
Wednesday, December 19 – Brooklyn Nets (13 – 10) vs. New York Knicks (18 – 5)
Has this matchup already been given a nickname, a la the Subway Series? Come on, New York media! Step up your game! This will be the third time these teams face each other in less than a month. Both earlier matchups came down to the wire and could’ve gone to either team. There are no indications that this will be anything less than an edge-of-your-seat, early Christmas treat.
Keys to Victory: Joe Johnson has been playing great, shooting 50% or better in four of the last five games, including a buzzer-beating winner vs. Detroit. With his hot shooting and Brook Lopez’s return (he missed last week’s loss to New York), Brooklyn will be tough to beat. For New York, they’ll win if the Tyson Chandler that showed up on November 26 (28 points, 10 rebounds) comes out to play, rather than the Tyson Chandler from December 11 (5 points, 7 rebounds).
Prediction: New York wins 96 – 94.
Thursday, December 20 – Miami Heat (15 – 6) vs. Dallas Mavericks (11 – 13)
A rematch of the 2011 NBA Finals pits the Heat against a very different looking Dallas squad. Gone are Jason Terry and Jason Kidd. With Dirk Nowitzki still sidelined with an injury, the Mavs have been carried by O.J. Mayo and a cast of overachieving veterans. This is the second Wednesday in a row that I’m writing this, but Miami has struggled against teams who rank high in pace. It showed last Wednesday when the Golden State Warriors (ranked 6th in pace) upset the Heat on their home floor. The Mavericks rank 2nd in pace this season.
Keys to Victory: For the Heat, they need to hold the Mayo (sorry). Over the last 11 games, the Mavs have lost each game where Mayo’s Game Score has been under 10. For Dallas, they need to do the same thing that Golden State did last week, as well as Denver and San Antonio earlier this season – push the pace/tempo.
Prediction: Miami wins 105 – 98.
Friday, December 21 – Dallas Mavericks (11 – 13) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (15 – 6)
After battling for 48 minutes with LeBron James, O.J. Mayo must then battle his old mates in Memphis 24 hours later. Mayo is having a career year after Memphis allowed him to leave via free agency. He currently ranks 2nd in 3pt FG%, and also ranks in the top 10 in TS%. Mayo is the main reason why the Mavericks are currently in a playoff position, despite receiving a grand total of zero minutes from Dirk Nowitzki. On the flip side, the Grizzlies defense has only gotten better since last year. They rank first in multiple defensive categories including rebounds, assists, and points allowed.
Keys to Victory: For the Mavericks, they need to play aggressively and get to the free throw line. The Denver Nuggets have beaten the Grizzlies twice this season because they shot 27 more free throws on each occasion. If Memphis can play the defense they’re capable of and keep the Mavericks under 100 (which they’ve done 19 of 20 games this season), they should easily win this game.
Prediction: Memphis 95 – 89.
Saturday, December 22 – Chicago Bulls (13 – 9) vs. Atlanta Hawks (14 – 7)
Both teams will be coming in from Friday night road games and, quite possibly, similar records as they continue battling for the third seed. The first round of All-Star ballots were announced and it looks like the starters will be LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Kevin Garnett/Chris Bosh if all holds up. That presumably leaves three reserve spots between Tyson Chandler, Anderson Varejao, Joakim Noah, and Al Horford. Watching the former Florida Gator teammates, Noah and Horford, do battle all night long, especially with possible All-Star bragging rights on the line should be a treat.
Keys to Victory: For the Bulls, Noah will have to prove his All-Star worthiness and crash the offensive glass. He ranks 4th in Offensive Rebounding %, while the Hawks are #1 in allowing the least amount of offensive boards. Last year, Atlanta scored less than 80 points in their three losses to the Bulls. In the lone Hawks victory, Chicago scored 109. If the Hawks can shoot in the 48% – 50% range on their field goals, then they will prevail.
Prediction: Chicago wins 93 – 84.
Sunday, December 23 – Minnesota Timberwolves (12 – 9) vs. New York Knicks (18 – 5)
The T-Wolves have managed to survive the early-season bout of injuries and currently sit in a playoff position. Ricky Rubio should be starting and Brandon Roy isn’t far behind. I realize this is the third Knicks game in this week’s installment, but when you play the way they have, it merits recognition. New York’s #1 ranked offense and 20-1 home record under Mike Woodson will be tested by Minnesota’s #4 defense.
Keys to Victory: The Wolves rank 4th in opponents 3pt FG%. Meanwhile, the Knicks have drained more threes than any other team in the NBA. If Minny can keep New York under eight 3-pointers made, then they can hand the Knicks their first home loss of the season. Rubio is coming off left knee surgery. If I were New York, I’d exploit his matchup and make him work at both ends of the floor. That last sentence was basically a bat signal for Raymond Felton to carry the Knicks to victory.
Prediction: New York wins 104 – 100.
Last Week: 5 – 2
Season Record: 25 – 15