Steve Nash makes his second trip to Phoenix. The first time around, the fans at US Airways Center treated him like a king. Too bad the Suns players didn’t do the same, as Phoenix pulled out a surprising 92 – 86 victory. It should be a different story this time, as Los Angeles is starting to hit their stride. Even if Kobe Bryant misses the game due to a high ankle sprain, the Lakers are making their brutal start to the season a distant memory. Dwight Howard is looking like his old self, Antawn Jamison and the rest of the Laker bench are contributing more, and don’t forget that Pau Gasol will be returning before the playoffs begin! Watch out for these Lakers.
Keys to Victory: Somebody needs to stop Michael Beasley! That’s probably the only time you’ll see anyone type those words. When Phoenix pulled off the earlier upset, Beasley had the best game of his career, scoring 27 points on 12 of 20 shooting. While they can’t expect that performance again, Phoenix can hope for a strong outing from Goran Dragic. He’ll look to show up the aging Nash, while also not worrying about the injured Bryant. For L.A., here’s Howard’s chance to grab the spotlight and put together a monster game against an inferior front court.
Prediction: L.A. wins 108 – 97.
What an exciting matchup of two of the league’s best offenses. Denver survived a rough patch to begin their season and have used a home-heavy schedule to boost their record. The tough part about playing the Nuggets is that George Karl allows his squad to play freely, hardly ever running set plays. On any given night, you can have Ty Lawson score 25, or Danilo Gallinari drain six 3-pointers, or Wilson Chandler lead the team in scoring. With Oklahoma City, you know exactly what you’re getting. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant will carry the lion’s share of the scoring load – and there’s nothing you can really do to stop that, other than hope to shut down everyone else and hope Westbrook has an off-night.
Keys to Victory: Denver’s bench dominated Oklahoma City’s when these two played on March 1, outscoring them 71-11. George Karl should use a similar pattern of substitutions, or lack thereof, to keep the Thunder guessing on the defensive end. The pace at which Denver runs is actually perfect for Westbrook’s style of play. If he can score 30 on 50% shooting, the Thunder should win.
Prediction: Oklahoma City wins 107 – 102.
From facing one of the NBA’s best offenses to facing its toughest defense – on the backend of a back-to-back, no less. If the Thunder want to grab top spot from the Spurs, especially with Tony Parker out for a few weeks, they can’t take their foot off the pedal. Gregg Popovich will use this time of year to rest his veterans for the playoffs, as evidenced in last week’s loss to Minnesota, but Scott Brooks has younger legs on his squad who can do the 82-game grind. As for Memphis, they’ve found their offensive identity without Rudy Gay, and it’s a much more efficient one. Since acquiring Tayshaun Prince, the Grizzlies offense have scored 105.3 points per 100 possessions, which would be good enough for 9th in the league.
Keys to Victory: These teams have split their two games this season. When Memphis won, they received solid contributions from Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph (14-28, 34 points, 17 rebounds, 4 steals, and 3 blocks). When Oklahoma City won, here’s what Gasol and Randolph did: 10-32, 6 turnovers, -22 rating. For the Thunder, they won because they were selective with their shots (only 72 FGA), yet also efficient (56% FG).
Prediction: Memphis wins 92 – 90.
Thursday, March 21 – Portland TrailBlazers vs. Chicago Bulls
A second consecutive Thursday that features the Blazers? I’m not sure what the schedule-makers were expecting from a Portland squad that was relying on a 6-foot-3 rookie from Weber State. Whatever the reasoning, Portland’s future looks bright with the Rookie of the Year’s leading candidate, Damian Lillard, along with first-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. As for Chicago, their present and future look bleaker with every day that Derrick Rose remains sidelined. Last week, panic levels went up in the Windy City after the Bulls were demolished by the Sacramento Kings, 121 – 79. Tom Thibodeau has done amazing to coach this team back to the playoffs, but he’s going to need some miracles if he hopes to get them past the second round without their MVP.
Keys to Victory: In a matchup featuring All-Star bigs, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, and Aldridge, all eyes should actually focus on the smallest guys on the court. When they faced each other earlier this season, the Bulls got a solid contribution from Nate Robinson, who scored 18 points off the bench. Now that he’s a starter, Chicago will hope to get even more scoring from the three-time dunk champ. Portland will combat with Lillard. He has been solidifying his status as Rookie of the Year and should improve on his 16 point, 3 assist outing when these two last faced.
Prediction: Chicago wins 95 – 94.
In last season’s playoffs, the Jazz were unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs by the Spurs. This year, the Jazz are battling just to have a chance of playing San Antonio in the playoffs. Last week, I wrote about Utah’s four horsemen and how they’d fare against Memphis’ Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. This week, it’s almost as difficult having to go up against Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. Duncan is having an outstanding season, averaging 16 and 10, while playing less than 30 minutes per game. Splitter has been even better and should be considered as one of the NBA’s most improved. He currently ranks 6th in Win Shares per 48 Minutes, and is one of only two players (Marc Gasol) to rank in the top 20 in Offensive AND Defensive Rating!
Keys to Victory: The Jazz defeated the Spurs earlier this season after getting 10 field goals made each from Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Gregg Popovich will defensive scheme around limiting one of those two, so look for a stronger effort from either Enes Kanter or Derrick Favors. For San Antonio, they’re the #1 team in assists, even after Tony Parker’s injury. If they can get to 25 assists as a team, then they’ll be in position to win.
Prediction: San Antonio wins 104 – 92.
There have been an inordinate amount of play-of-the-year highlights involving the Nets including Kobe’s dunk on Kris Humphries & Gerald Wallace, Joe Johnson humiliating Paul Pierce and Chris Bosh, and, my personal favourite, Brook Lopez dunking on his brother, Robin. Wouldn’t it just feel right to have DeAndre Jordan leap entirely over Humphries? Lob City + Highlight Reel City = Must Watch! You know what else I can see happening? Deron Williams and Jamal Crawford trading 3-pointers for six consecutive possessions! Set your DVRs, folks, because this should be a good one.
Keys to Victory: When the Nets and Clippers met in Brooklyn earlier this season, L.A.’s bench were shut down and only scored 24 points total. A Tribe called Bench will need at least 35-40 to get past the Nets. For Brooklyn, Brook Lopez will need to outduel fellow All-Star, Blake Griffin. 25 points and 7 boards should be what the Nets will need from him.
Prediction: Los Angeles wins 96 – 88.
It’s a battle of lefty shooters, with Manu Ginobili and James Harden ready to wreak havoc on the rim. These former Sixth Man award winners rank in the top 20 in PER (Harden = 6th, Ginobili = 20th) and Win Shares per 48 Minutes (Harden = 7th, Ginobili = 15th). Keep in mind that Harden is only 23 years old. As a fellow lefty, it’s reassuring to know that the Bearded One will carry the torch that was previously carried by Ginobili, David Robinson, Chris Mullin, and Bill Russell. One final number for you: the last time San Antonio missed the playoffs (the year before they drafted Duncan), Rockets rookie Terrence Jones was 5 years old!
Keys to Victory: Beware of falling Threes! In the three previous meetings this season, Houston drained 12 3-pointers and San Antonio hit 10 3-pointers…..AVERAGE. In Houston’s only win over San Antonio this year, Jeremy Lin went off for 38 points. The Rockets will need at least 4 treys from Linsanity (does anyone still refer to him that way?). As for the Spurs, their most recent victory over the Rockets was contributed greatly from some red-hot 3-point shooting (12-23 or 52%). Look for at least three treys from Danny Green for the Spurs to get past Houston.
Prediction: Houston wins 110 – 108.
Last Week: 3 – 4
Season: 64 – 48
Topics: Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Portland TrailBlazers, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz