The Nuggets are challenging for home court advantage, while the Lakers are just battling to get into the playoffs. Kenneth Faried may be grabbing headlines recently with his MVP performance at the Rookie-Sophomore game, but the improved play of Ty Lawson has elevated the Nuggets to the NBA’s upper echelon. Kobe Bryant recently predicted that his Lakers will make this year’s playoffs. While a bold statement for an underachieving team, they started the second half of the season on the right foot by dismantling the injury-riddled Celtics. Dwight Howard looked outstanding and, more importantly, fully engaged. He did majority of his damage in the first quarter, which set the tone for the Laker rout.
Keys to Victory: For Denver, it’s all about converting turnovers into fast break opportunities. The Nuggets rank 3rd in steals, while the Lakers rank 26th in turnovers. Once Denver gets out on the break, the young legs of Lawson, Andre Iguodala, and Danilo Gallinari can wear down a Laker team filled with over-30 players. For L.A., Howard needs to win the battle of the boards. Both squads rank in the top three in rebounding (L.A. – 3rd; Denver – 1st), but without Pau Gasol, Howard will need to haul in close to 20 rebounds. If “Orlando Howard” shows up and owns the paint, the Lakers will pull out the upset.
Prediction: Denver wins 112 – 110.
3-Point Shootout competitors, Steph Curry and Paul George, face each other again, but with much higher stakes on the line. It seems like ages ago that the Warriors had one of the top five records in the NBA. Even with Andrew Bogut’s return, Mark Jackson’s squad has dropped in the standings with the Blazers, Lakers, and Jazz nipping at their heels. The main culprit has been their defense, which has dropped into the bottom third in the league. This is also an area where the Pacers excel, ranking #1 in the association. What the Warriors have going for them is that they won the earlier season matchup, 103-92, thanks to balanced scoring (at least 16 points) from Klay Thompson, Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry, and Curry.
Keys to Victory: This may be a low-scoring affair with poor shooting percentages, so hitting threes will carry more weight. The Warriors rank 1st in 3pt FG%, while the Pacers rank 1st in defensive 3pt FG%. If Curry, Thompson, and Jack can drain at least seven threes on 40% shooting, they’ll be in good position to win. For Indiana, they live and die by their defense. Roy Hibbert and David West will need to limit David Lee’s effectiveness to under 17 points and under 8 boards. Making this a one-man show (Curry) will be too tall a task for the Warriors to overcome.
Prediction: Indiana wins 94- 82.
If the Mavericks ever hope to reach .500, they’d better start stringing together some winning streaks because their beards are getting quite grisly (am I right? Hello?). Also at stake is Dallas’ streak of 12 consecutive seasons of making the playoffs. O.J. Mayo will be visiting his old stomping grounds, so his familiarity with Mike Conley and Tony Allen will come in handy. Memphis currently sits 4th in the Western Conference, tied with 3rd place Clippers in the loss column. Climbing one more spot will be the difference between playing a slumping Golden State Warrior squad (losers of 6 of last 7) and a matchup nightmare in Denver (1-2 vs. the Nuggets).
Keys to Victory: Dallas need to push the tempo. The Mavs rank 4th in pace while the Grizzlies are 28th. A faster game with more possessions against one of the lowest scoring offenses (26th) is how Dallas can win. For Memphis, Marc Gasol can show the rest of the NBA why he deserves Defensive Player of the Year consideration by shutting down one of the greatest Power Forwards in history, Dirk Nowitzki.
Prediction: Memphis wins 90 – 82.
How’s this for a darkhorse NBA Finals preview? The Clippers have shown they can beat all of the West’s best – which was mainly done without Chauncey Billups. The Pacers have not lost to the Heat or Knicks yet this season. Defense wins championships, and these two are in the top five in points allowed (Clippers – 4th; Pacers – 1st). When the Clippers are healthy,which they finally appear to be, they’ve defeated top-tier defensive teams like the Grizzlies and Bulls. On the other hand, the Pacers have been extraordinary at home, beating top-tier offensive teams like the Heat (twice), Knicks (twice), and Rockets. This should be a great matchup of contrasting styles.
Keys to Victory: Let’s not get cute with this – a Clipper victory rides on the shoulders of their MVP, Chris Paul. L.A. has twice defeated the Grizzlies this season, a team with similar makeup as these Pacers (top-2 defense, bottom-5 offense). They won those games because CP3 dominated both sides of the ball. Indiana ranks in the top 3 in rebounds and blocked shots. To beat the Clippers, similar to the formula against their other Pacific Division foe on Tuesday, Indiana will need Roy Hibbert and David West to own the paint against L.A.’s athletic bigs.
Prediction: L.A. wins 90 – 89.
Speaking of NBA Finals previews, the Grizzlies have the defensive acumen to carry them through the West. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol make up arguably the best front court in the league – offensively and defensively. Randolph leads the league in double-doubles, while Gasol is one of the leading candidates for Defensive Player of the Year. Gasol’s impact on the defensive end may be limited, as the Heat will run a lot of small-ball lineups. Tony Allen and newest acquisition, Tayshaun Prince, will have their hands full guarding LeBron James. Allen, along with Conley, Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, and James, are along among the top 20 in steals, so expect a lot of turnovers.
Keys to Victory: Randolph needs to fill up the stat sheet. The Grizzlies rank 2nd in offensive rebounding, which bodes very well against the NBA’s worst rebounding team. A 20-point, 15-rebound, 2-blocks stat line for Z-Bo should be enough to help Memphis win. For Miami, James will need to carry more of the scoring load. The Grizzlies do a great job of cutting passing lanes (5th in steals) and closing out on shooters (5th in 3-pointers allowed). James can expect a lower assist total, but should make up for it with 32+ points.
Prediction: Miami wins 100 – 87.
First-time All-Stars, Brook Lopez, Joakim Noah, and Luol Deng, reunite at the United Center in a battle for playoff positioning. Deron Williams appears to be laboring from his ankle injuries, as it’s shown in his decreased production. His points, assists, rebounds, and steals averages are all down from last year. Joe Johnson has picked up the pieces, hitting multiple buzzer-beaters in last week’s game vs. Milwaukee – to force overtime and another to win the game. Chicago’s playoff hopes hinges on whether or not Derrick Rose returns this season. Without him, the Bulls are capable of reaching the Conference Semis. With him back at 100%, they’re a serious threat to dethrone the Heat!
Keys to Victory: They both rank in the top 5 in points allowed (Nets – 5th; Bulls – 3rd), so scoring will be at a premium.Williams has a chance to turn around his season with a statement game against the Bulls. He’s stronger than Chicago’s guards and should use that to his advantage – whether it be posting and kicking out (a la LeBron), or bullying his man. For Chicago, they need to take advantage of Lopez’s weak rebounding. He’ll play more minutes than any other Forward, but he’s a poor rebounder. Gobbling up all the boards will limit the Bulls to one-and-done offensive trips.
Prediction: Chicago wins 90 – 87.
What an outstanding way to end the weekend! In what appears to be an annual tradition, fans are bored of San Antonio and looking for more exciting teams to emerge from the West. The top two teams on most lists are the Thunder and Clippers. At the All-Star game, Kevin Durant became the first player to score 30 in three consecutive All-Star games. However, it was Chris Paul who was awarded the MVP after scoring 20, dishing 15 assists, and hitting multiple clutch shots down the stretch. Along with the Spurs, these two are the only teams ranked in the top 10 in offensive AND defensive efficiency.
Keys to Victory: Russell Westbrook is having a better season than most think. His assists have jumped from 5.5 last season to 8.1 this year. Furthermore, his assists are leading to easier buckets. Last year, he ranked 27th in assists at the rim (dunks and layups, essentially). This year, he’s sky-rocketed to 5th. If he can stray away from contested, early-shot-clock jumpers, and look to set up his bigs down low, the Thunder will be in great position to win (especially with Mr. Durant filling the stat sheet like he normally does). For L.A., look for a very strong outing from CP3. In November, he shot 2-14, as his Clippers fell to the Thunder in overtime. In January, he missed a home game against Oklahoma City, due to injury (the Thunder won by 12). This is their last matchup before a potential date in the playoffs, so look for Paul to log 40+ minutes and amass a 20-10 line.
Prediction: Los Angeles wins 103 – 102.
Last Week: 2 – 2
Season: 55 – 43