The Pacers are the flavor of the week after notching home victories over the Heat and Knicks. Paul George has emerged as an All-Star candidate who fills the stats sheets. His ability to excel at both ends of the floor, at the tender age of 22, should worry the LeBron’s and Durant’s of the association. Speaking of all-stars, the Grizzlies have a front court that’s worthy of a mid-February trip to Houston. Despite getting offensively thrashed by the Clippers for the second time this season, Memphis is coming off a gritty home-and-home split with the Spurs.
Keys to Victory: First one to 85 wins! This won’t be the most eye-catching game of the week, but if you you truly love basketball, a defensive battle like this is surely must-see. Roy Hibbert and George rank 3 & 4 in defensive rating. Their individual pairings will also be a treat – George vs. Gay; Hibbert vs. Gasol; and West vs. Randolph. Like I already mentioned, first to 85 wins!
Prediction: Memphis wins 87 – 82.
Less than 24 hours after finishing their tight season series with the Warriors, the Clips go face-to-face with the defending Western Conference champs. This matchup of the NBA’s best records features 60% of the West All-Star starters (Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, and Blake Griffin), the top two in Win Shares per 48 minutes (Durant and Paul), two of the leading Sixth Man of the Year candidates (Kevin Martin and Jamal Crawford), and two of the top shot-blockers (Serge Ibaka and DeAndre Jordan). I haven’t even mentioned the other All-Star point guard, Russell Westbrook, the former Coach of the Year, Scott Brooks, the league’s leader in steal %, Eric Bledsoe, and the return of Grant Hill, who was a +14 in his return last Thursday.
Keys to Victory: This mega-matchup really hinges on the guard play. Westbrook needs to continue his inspired play of late. Over the last four games, he’s scored at least 30 points, while also shooting 50% on the other side. CP3′s return to the lineup gives him a chance to remind the world that Westbrook is not on his level either at the point guard position or on the MVP level. Whichever point guard plays better, whether it’s statistically (Westbrook) or intangibly (Paul), will win this game.
Prediction: Los Angeles wins 114 – 110.
The Thunder have a pair of statement games this week with back-to-back road games against two of the next five best records in the entire league. Oracle Arena will be at it’s loudest when Durant, Westbrook, and company roll into town – weary from doing battle with the Clippers one night earlier. In there only previous matchup this season, Durant recorded his first career triple-double as the Thunder pulled out a 119-109 home win.
Keys to Victory: Steph Curry’s return to the lineup bumps Jarrett Jack back to his sixth man role. Although Jack filled in admirably, his leadership of the second unit will cone in handy when battling Martin. Curry and Lee will have their normally strong outings, but 20 points from Jack could push Golden State over the top. For the Thunder, they shouldn’t expect another triple-double from Durant, but they’re 10-1 when he scores at least the number on his jersey, which he is very capable of attaining against a Warrior squad that has no one who can guard him.
Prediction: Golden State wins 108 – 107.
Although these two last faced each other only two weeks ago, a lot has happened since. For one, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Garnett had quite the encounter! A couple of technical fouls plus a post-game altercation makes this a must-watch matchup. Also, these two have been announced as starters for the upcoming All-Star game in Houston. Furthermore, the return of Avery Bradley has led to a 6 – 2 record for Boston, as they claw their way back up the Eastern Conference standings.
Keys to Victory: The Celtics managed to win at Madison Square Garden, despite missing Rajon Rondo, who was serving a one-game suspension. Jason Kidd will have to limit Rondo’s effectiveness and remind everyone why he was a nine-time member of the All-Defensive team. For Boston, they rank 5th in turnovers and 6th in FG% – two areas they won in their matchup with New York, and which surely helped secure a surprise victory on Jan. 7.
Prediction: New York wins 100 – 97.
The latest chapter in this Texas battle sees a resurgent Dallas team trying to overcome an early-season Dirk Nowitzki injury to sneak into the playoffs. They’ve won five of their last six, only losing in overtime to the Thunder. The Mavericks have a handful of crunch time scorers (Nowitzki, O.J. Mayo, and even Vince Carter), defensive stalwarts (Chris Kaman and Elton Brand), and steady guard play (Collison, Rodrigue Beaubois, and Mayo). The Spurs are quietly sitting in a comfortable 3rd seed position. It’s as if they’re content with leaving the Clippers and Thunder to battle for home court throughout the playoffs, and resting their core until mid -April.
Keys to Victory: With Manu Ginobili likely out due to a hamstring injury, somebody needs to step up and provide a spark off the bench. Enter Gary Neal. He’s shown the ability to score 20+ when given starter minutes, which is essentially what he’ll be given in Ginobili’s absence. Since returning from injury a month ago, Nowitzki has yet to score more than 20, nor has he reached double-digits in rebounding. Reach one of those thresholds, Dirk, and your Mavs may be victorious.
Prediction: San Antonio wins 109 – 102.
In this home and home opener, the Clippers bring their show to the Rose Garden. Rookie of the Leader frontrunner, Damian Lillard, will have his hands full with Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe. On the other hand, Blake Griffin will be quite busy guarding fellow All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. Nic Batum has been having an outstanding season, averaging 17 points, 1.5 steals, and 2.5 threes per game. Matt Barnes and Caron Butler have to work extra hard to contain the Frenchman.
Keys to Victory: Tribe Called Bench needs to impose their will on the one of the league’s worst benches. When Portland’s starters sit, Jamal Crawford, Bledsoe, Hill, and Barnes need to hit the groung run ing and build a large lead. For Portland, Lillard will have to outplay/outscore the league’s best Point Guard.
Prediction: Clippers win 110 – 98.
In Ray Allen’s return to Boston, I wouldn’t expect anything less than an all-around outstanding performance. You know what you’re getting from LeBron James, especially when he faces an arch-rival like the Celtics. Boston will want to avenge an opening night loss to Miami, where Rondo dropped 20 points, shot 64%, and dished out 13 assists. Before the season, most pundits chose these two as the East champions, so this mid-season match should help each team gauge how well they’re performing, to date.
Keys to Victory: Miami basically needs to replicate what they accomplished back in October. James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and Allen all scored at least 19 points. Ray-Ray’s game was especially solid because he nailed five threes and proved it was a mistake by Boston to let him walk. The Celtics, and their 29th ranked rebounding squad, need to out-rebound the Heat, thus creating second-chance/fast break points.
Prediction: Miami wins 94 – 80.
Last Week: 5 – 2
Season Record: 44 – 30
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