The Thunder are clicking on all cylinders and hoping to nab home court advantage in the wild, wild West. With one month left in the season, things look are starting to look eerily similar to 2011-12, which is both good and bad for fans of Oklahoma City and San Antonio. The Spurs are using their excellent ball movement (#1 in assists) and ageless wonders (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker are all at or above career averages across the board) to help achieve the NBA’s best record. They fell two victories short of the Finals when the Thunder clogged the paint and reduced Parker’s lane-driving effectiveness. With Parker out until April, this game is a true test of the Spurs’ mettle and if they’ll be able to hold on to the top spot in the West. Oklahoma City is riding career years from their two superstars, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. However, Kevin Martin isn’t quite James Harden, and they continue to look up at the Spurs in the race for top spot. The Spurs boast one of the best home records in the league.
Keys to Victory: These two have each won a home game against the other this season. San Antonio shot the ball really well (47.5 eFG%) and won the turnover battle by five in their Nov. 1 victory. Look for a more pass-happy Ginobili, because 7+ dimes will help make up for the loss of Parker. Oklahoma City dominated the boards (+12) and got a career night from Serge Ibaka (25 & 17) in their Dec. 17 win. Westbrook needs to continue is recent string of excellent play. In both games against the Spurs, he shot horribly (12-39).
Prediction: San Antonio wins 103 – 99.
This is arguably the most anticipated game of non-playoff teams in NBA history! I’m hyping this one up, baby! Dwight Howard returns to the city that anointed him their Superman, which is the same city he led to the NBA Finals (against the Lakers, ironically). It’s the same city whose coach he got fired and collective emotions he toyed with for years as he not-so-quietly sought an escape. The reception he’ll receive will be one of the roughest you’ll ever hear (think Vince Carter to Toronto, or LeBron James to Cleveland). Last week, I was in attendance when Sacramento visited Orlando. The Kings blew the Magic away from the opening tip. Despite being down by 30 for most of the game, the fans kept cheering until the final buzzer and hardly anyone left early. It’s their passion for their team that adds something extra to the atmosphere heading into this game – one which all eyes should be glued to!
Keys to Victory: If Orlando hopes to replicate their shocking victory over these Lakers on Dec. 2, they’ll be doing so without Glen Davis, who scored 23 and grabbed 12 rebounds. Tobias Harris has been a great trade deadline acquisition and should make up for the scoring. As for the rebounds, Nikola Vucevic is capable of 20+ boards, especially considering Pau Gasol is out and Howard’s game may be affected by the crowd. As for L.A., their success rides on Kobe Bryant’s shoulders, as usual. If he can get his third 40-point game in a week, the Lakers will easily win.
Prediction: Los Angeles wins 110 – 99.
I may have highlighted this Grizzlies-Clippers matchup as the Game of the Night on all THREE occasions they’ve faced each other this season. They just match up perfectly to each others’ strengths and weaknesses and have never disappointed in delivering a captivating performance. It’s as if they’re continuing their series from Game 7 in last year’s playoffs. Speaking of which, the likelihood of these two facing each other again in April/May is relatively slim. The Clippers appear to be locked into the 2 or 3-seed, while the Grizz have been in the 4-5 range all season long. They’d likely have to get through the Spurs and Thunder in order to meet in the Conference Finals. In other words, enjoy this matchup while you can!
Keys to Victory: For both teams, it’s going to boil down to how well Memphis can shoot against L.A.’s stifling D. They’ve shot 38% and 30%(!) against the Clips this season. If they can convert their offensive boards (+22 for both games) into easy baskets in the paint, they’ll be in good shape. The interior D of Lamar Odom and DeAndre Jordan played really well last time and will be relied on to deliver another Clipper victory.
Prediction: Los Angeles wins 102 – 90.
Two of the league’s higher scoring offenses face off in Rip City. New York is in the thick of the race for a 2-seed, while Portland is clinging to their playoff lives in the West. Only 4.5 games separate the 2nd and 7th seeds in the East, so this winnable road game is critical for the Knicks, who currently sit in 3rd. Just as tight in the West, Portland is four games behind Houston for 7th. However, the Jazz and hard-charging Lakers are also squeezed in between them. This has the makings of a high-scoring affair, as both teams rank in the top 5 in three-pointers attempted.
Keys to Victory: When these two met on New Year’s Day, it marked Amar’e Stoudemire’s first game of the season. Up until then, the Knicks were playing excellently, having put together a 70% winning percentage (21-9). With Stoudemire out for the rest of the regular season, you can expect to see a lot of Anthony playing the four and quarterbacking his three-point shooters (J.R. Smith, Steve Novak, and Jason Kidd) to open looks. Portland would benefit greatly from another strong outing from J.J. Hickson, who grabbed nine boards and scored 18 points on 9-11 shooting on Jan. 1.
Prediction: Portland wins 107 – 99.
The Pacers have been outstanding at home this season, beating Miami, New York, and Chicago – twice each! Their front court of David West, Roy Hibbert, and Paul George are all among the top 10 in defensive efficiency. They’ll be tested by a Laker squad that’s finding ways to win games, despite a below-average defense. 34-year-old, Kobe Bryant, has been playing more like 24-year-old Kobe Bryant. Whether he’s posterizing his defenders, scoring 40 points, or leading his team back from a 25-point deficit, the Black Mamba is on a mission to back up his prediction of making the playoffs. It will be very interesting to see how the rejuvenated Bryant fares against George, who’s already shut down the likes of LeBron James (10 turnovers and -14 rating in two trips to Indiana) and Carmelo Anthony (33% shooting and 15 points in only visit to Indiana).
Keys to Victory: For the Lakers, they somebody else other than Bryant to show up. When these two met on Nov. 27, Kobe scored 40, but the rest of his teammates combined for 37. For Indiana, Mr. Hibbert needs to step up his contribution on the offensive end. He had a very pedestrian line when they last played each other, 8 points and 5 boards. That lack of offense will allow Howard to be a more disruptive help defender.
Prediction: Indiana wins 90 – 85.
Utah is hanging on to the eighth spot and refusing to let go. The problem is that the aforementioned Lakers are nipping at their heels, plus the Jazz have one of the toughest schedules remaining. While Memphis has an identity of being one of the best defensive squads (1st in points allowed, 2nd in defensive rating), the Jazz are just an average team across the board (13th in points, 17th in points allowed). Utah goes as far as their big men take them. Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors, and Enes Kanter all have PERs higher than 17.5. Notable players in the 17-18 PER range include Joakim Noah, Josh Smith, Jrue Holiday, and Ty Lawson.
Keys to Victory: As much as I think the Grizzlies have the strongest front court in the league, there’s also strength in numbers. Utah’s Four Horsemen (sorry Arn Anderson) will prove to be a tall task for Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph if they can show why they rank 5th in blocks and shut down Memphis’ interior game. For Memphis, they won both games this season against Utah because they dominated the glass. With the playoffs around the corner, I expect nothing less than 22+ rebounds combined from Gasol and Z-Bo.
Prediction: Memphis wins 95 – 79.
UPSET SPECIAL! Miami enters this game as the hottest team in the league. With the relief of knocking another Milwaukee game off their schedule two nights earlier (2-2 over last two seasons), and a visit to Boston tomorrow, the Raptors could very well catch the Heat snoozing at the wheel. Toronto has played Miami very well this season – forcing one game to overtime, and matching them for three quarters in another game. With the Raptors staring another playoff-less offseason right in the face, a victory over former Raptor Chris Bosh will almost make this season a success!
Keys to Victory: Toronto needs to combine what they’ve learned from the first two games to get the upset. Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas need to combine for 20+ rebounds. Kyle Lowry and Rudy Gay each need to keep their turnover totals below 3. For Miami, the answer is and always has been, LeBron James. No one on the planet can stop him. The Raptors rank #1 in the NBA in personal fouls, but good luck trying to stop the King from getting to the rim!
Prediction: Toronto wins 102 – 101.
Last Week: 6 – 1
Season: 61 – 44
Tags: Indiana Pacers Los Angeles Clippers Los Angeles Lakers Memphis Grizzlies Miami Heat New York Knicks Oklahoma City Thunder Orlando Magic Portland Trail Blazers Portland TrailBlazers San Antonio Spurs Toronto Raptors Utah Jazz