December 25, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Denver Nuggets small forward Kenneth Faried (35) , Los Angeles Clippers center Ronny Turiaf (21) and power forward Lamar Odom (7) go for a rebound during the game at the Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

NBA Games of the Week: Dec. 31 - Jan. 6 (Previews/Predictions)

Monday, December 31Atlanta Hawks (19 – 9) vs. Houston Rockets (16- 14)

Only six days after being traded from the Oklahoma City Thunder, James Harden scored the highest individual point total (later matched by Carmelo Anthony) with 45 in Atlanta.  The Rockets are playing their best ball of the season, having reeled off a five-game win streak against five playoff-worthy teams, including the Knicks and Grizziles.  The Hawks have been playing great all season and currently rank third in the East.  They’ve been getting strong play from All-Star-to-be, Al Horford, and future Celtic, Josh Smith (I rubber stamp those two predictions!)

Keys to Victory: No team in the NBA picks up less personal fouls than the Hawks.  In their last six games, Atlanta has won each game where they’ve accumulated less personal fouls than their opponent, and lost each game where they amassed more. On the flip side, Harden ranks second in free throw attempts. When they played earlier this season, Harden went 15 of 17 from the line. Harden’s reached double-figure free throw attempts in four of his last five games (Houston’s won four of their last five too).

Prediction: Houston wins 100 – 98.

Tuesday, January 1Los Angeles Clippers (24 – 6) vs. Denver Nuggets (17 – 15)

Happy New Year!  The Nuggets welcome the Clippers to the Mile High City, where they will try to avenge last week’s 112 – 100 loss to L.A.  Denver has survived a tough opening schedule where they played 22 of their first 32 games on the road.  Playing their next 7 of 8 at home where they’ve only lost once this season sounds like a pretty good confidence booster.  In their earlier meeting, L.A. used a 42-point second quarter to take control of the game.

Keys to Victory: The Clippers’ bench mob were sensational last week getting contributions from Matt Barnes (20 points), Jamal Crawford (22 points), and Lamar Odom (10 rebounds).  The Nuggets will need a better game from Kenneth Faried (6 points and 9 boards in the previous meeting) and Danilo Gallinari (7 points on 1-10 shooting), who’s coming off a 39-point outing in Dallas.

Prediction: Denver wins 115 – 113.

Wednesday, January 2 Brooklyn Nets (16 – 14) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (23 – 6)

In 2008, PJ Carlesimo was fired as the Thunder’s head coach.  He coached the final season in Seattle (20-62 record in ‘07/’08), then started the ‘08/’09 campaign at 1-12.  Carlesimo makes his return with a Brooklyn squad that’s still trying to find their identity.  Are they the 11-4 November team that defeated the Celtics (twice) and Knicks?  Or are they the 4-10 December team that’s lost to the Knicks (twice) and Celtics?  In November, they held eight opponents to 90 points or less – all victories.  In December, they allowed eight opponents to score 97 points or more – all but one were losses.

Keys to Victory: The Nets are going to need their best defensive effort of the season to pull off the upset. Reggie Evans leads the league in Total Rebounding Percentage and Brook Lopez ranks 6th in blocks per game.  Gerald Wallace was first-team all-defensive just three seasons ago, and will need to showcase that ability while guarding Kevin Durant.  The NBA’s leading shot-blocker, Serge Ibaka, will need to shut down the Nets’ best player, Lopez, keeping his boards under 10 and his points under 20.

Prediction: Oklahoma City wins 107 – 95.

Thursday, January 3San Antonio Spurs (23 – 8) vs. New York Knicks (21 – 9)

The Spurs are playing their 4th game in five nights. The last time that happened, Gregg Popovich did this!  Is he gutsy enough to rest his starters again?  Probably not, but it’s another interesting topic of discussion as we head into this matchup of conference giants who have slipped from their early-season thrones.  The Knicks have been playing .500 ball over the last eight games, dealing with injured Carmelo Anthony.  The Spurs aren’t playing bad, they’re just not putting together double-digit win streaks like the Thunder and Clippers have in leaping ahead of San Antonio in the standings.

Keys to Victory: When they played on November 15th, the Knicks needed a 22-11 run to end the game and pull out a 104-100 victory.  The key to that victory was the guard play in the fourth.  J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton, and Jason Kidd outscored the Spurs 26-25 in the decisive quarter.  With Felton out and Anthony battling a knee injury, the Knicks will need a solid game from Smith.  His four highest scoring totals have come in the last five games.  For San Antonio, Tony Parker needs to show up down the stretch.  In the fourth quarter of the previous meeting, Parker scored three points, had three assists, and, most importantly, missed three jumpers within 10 feet.

Prediction: San Antonio wins 105 – 96.

Friday, January 4Los Angeles Lakers (15 – 15) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (24 – 6)

When these two met on November 2, the Lakers were still trying to figure out the Princeton offense while playing their first game without Steve Nash.  Two coaches and 7.5 weeks of rehab later, the battle of L.A. resumes with a relatively healthy Laker squad trying to cool down the streaking Clippers.  The Lakers have responded well to Nash’s return, winning three of four and (temporarily) quieting the Pau Gasol trade rumours.  DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are out to prove that the previous shut-down of Dwight Howard (13 points, 8 boards, and only 30 minutes of PT, due to constant foul trouble) was no fluke.

Keys to Victory: For the Lakers, more Steve and less Kobe.  In their previous meeting, Kobe dropped 40 points while playing all but five minutes – the Lakers lost by 10.  Steve can lift the play-making duties off of Kobe’s shoulders, so that he can save his energy for crunch time – an area that the Clippers have not been tested too many times this season.  During their 16-game winning streak, they only had three games where it was a one-possession game in the last minute of play.  For the Clippers, they’ll need to exploit their greatest strength, their bench, because the Lakers’ backups are just brutal.  My apologies, but Jodie Meeks, Jordan Hill, and a washed-up Antawn Jamison doesn’t exactly instill the type of fear that Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, and Eric Bledsoe do.

Prediction: Clippers win 105 – 104.

Saturday, January 5Golden State Warriors (21 – 10) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (24 – 6)

The Clippers will have less than 24 hours to recover from the Lakers game before going to battle with the up-and-coming Golden State Warriors, who also are one of six teams to defeat them this season.  David Lee is playing at an All-Star level (averaging 20 points and 11 boards), while Jarrett Jack (12 & 5) and Carl Landry (2nd in offensive win shares among non-starters) are both 6th Man of the Year candidates. The Clippers counter with two All-Stars of their own (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin), plus the highest scoring bench in the NBA, led by Jamal Crawford (16.4 points per game).

Keys to Victory: When these two played on November 3rd, the Warriors won 114 – 110 at the Staples Center because Landry contributed 23 & 10 off the bench.  This time around, they’ll need a better game out of Lee (8 points in the previous matchup).  For the Clippers, they can’t expect to get 52 free throw attempts again, and they’ll need to knock down a lot more than 30 field goals this time around.  Matt Barnes, Eric Bledsoe, and Lamar Odom combined for 3 of 13 shooting, eight points, and a -16 rating.  Crawford can be an amazing one-man show, but a little help from his bench mob can help propel the Clippers to victory.

Prediction: Golden State wins 105 – 102.

Sunday, January 6Denver Nuggets (17 – 15) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (15 – 15)

When they matched up on Boxing Day, the Nuggets allowed Kobe to score 40 points, but managed to hand the Lakers their first loss since Nash’s return.  The Nuggets and Lakers match up very well statistically: Points (L.A. = 5th, Denver = 6th), Opponents Points (L.A. = 23rd, Denver = 25th), Offensive Rating (L.A. = 6th, Denver 7th), Defensive Rating (L.A. = 20th, Denver 21st), and Pace (L.A. = 5th, Denver = 4th).  Kenneth Faried is one of the best offensive rebounders in the league (128 total, ranks second behind Anderson Varejao), while Dwight Howard is one of the best defensive rebounders (244 total is only three boards shy of 1st place, Omer Asik).

Keys to Victory: With the defensively-challenged Steve Nash guarding him, Ty Lawson will need another strong game against the Lakers.  Two weeks ago, Lawson dished out 14 assists and committed ZERO turnovers.  While a performance like that may not be expected, a better shooting performance (40% on Dec. 26) will.  For the Lakers to succeed, not only in this game, but for all games moving forward, they need to come together defensively.  When Denver and L.A. last played, the Lakers only grabbed 57.4% of available defensive rebounds.  In other words, Denver amassed 42.6% of offensive rebounds (or 20 in total), thus creating multiple second-chance opportunities.

Prediction: L.A. wins 116 – 108.

Last Week: 3 – 3

Season Record: 32 – 21

Jay Rosales is a writer for Sir Charles in Charge. You may follow him on Twitter at @Rosalesaurus.  

Tags: Atlanta Hawks Brooklyn Nets Denver Nuggets Golden State Warriors Houston Rockets Los Angeles Clippers Los Angeles Lakers NBA Games Of The Week New York Knicks Oklahoma City Thunder San Antonio Spurs

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