In a battle for a playoff spot, the Lakers and Warriors are right in the thick of it, sitting 8th and 6th, respectively. Los Angeles is determined to live up to Kobe Bryant‘s prediction of making the playoffs, playing through injuries to Bryant and Pau Gasol. Golden State has played well lately and tempered discussions of a late-season collapse. While making the playoffs would be great news for both teams (a chance for a clean slate for the Lakers; an unexpected trip for the normally-lottery-bound, Warriors), positioning is also crucial to continued success into May. For L.A., they’d prefer to play a less-than-100% Tony Parker-led San Antonio Spurs. Golden State would prefer to play a Clippers squad they’ve already beaten this season.
Keys to Victory: The Lakers have played the Warriors very well this season (and every other season!), so expect at least 30 from Bryant, assuming he’s in the lineup. For Golden State, they’ll need the improved play of Andrew Bogut to continue against Dwight Howard. If he can limit Howard to under 50% shooting or single digit rebounds, the Warriors will have a chance to upset L.A.
Prediction: Los Angeles wins 110 – 102.
Two of the older teams in the league are feeling the effects of the 82-game grind. Carmelo Anthony had missed three games due to a hamstring injury. The Knicks had lost all games in his absence. The Celtics had missed the services of Kevin Garnett who was dealing with a thigh injury and the flu. KG’s presence could have been the difference between Boston ending Miami’s historic streak last week and becoming just another notch on the belt. If both are uniform, I can’t help but be intrigued on how they’ll act around each other. Remember their early season argument that led to Anthony waiting for Garnett at their team bus? Oh, and don’t forget that these two could easily end up facing each other in the playoffs, thanks to a very jumbled East that has the 2nd and 7th seeds separated by five games.
Keys to Victory: New York ranks second in 3-pointers made and attempted, while Boston ranks second in 3-point FG%. If the Knicks can hit 8-10 threes or shoot 40% from behind the arc, they should be able to win. With New York’s banged up front court, Boston will need a double-double from Garnett to carry them to victory.
Prediction: Boston wins 93 – 92.
With all but two teams playing tonight, there are plenty of good games to watch. However, when two of the best five in the entire NBA face off with huge playoff implications on the line, this one’s a no-brainer. As I write this, San Antonio has the opportunity to end two of the NBA’s longest winning streaks in the same week. Entering tonight, Denver would be going for consecutive win #17, while the Spurs would play the Heat and their presumed 29-game win streak on Sunday (more on this shortly). This game also features the deepest teams in the league. While Miami and Oklahoma City rely on the abilities of their 2 or 3 superstars, Denver and San Antonio easily use 9-10 player lineups without so much as a hiccup to their overall effectiveness. Need proof? During this streak, Denver has beaten the Thunder and Bulls in games where their bench outscored their own starters. San Antonio sit atop the West, despite missing Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili for a total of 34 games this season.
Keys to Victory: Denver ranks second in steals. If they can force turnovers, they can fast-break the Spurs out of their own gym. For San Antonio, they’ll win this game from 3-point land. They rank sixth in 3-pointers made and attempted, while the Nuggets rank second-worst in both categories.
Prediction: Denver wins 104 – 101.
This is the third consecutive “TNT Thursday” night of slim pickings for great matchups (the previous two including Portland). If this is supposed to be the night of marquee matchups, the NBA schedule-makers are missing the mark. Anyway, we’ve got a matchup of dangerous 8-seeds with aspirations of first-round upsets on their respective minds. The Lakers will be dangerous because they’re starting to click and learning their roles. Kobe Bryant plays the Steve Nash role of leader/facilitator in Mike D’Antoni’s offense. Nash plays the role of Quentin Richardson/Joe Johnson/sharpshooter extraordinaire. Dwight Howard is just playing like Dwight Howard again! The Bucks are also a threat to the Heat (stop laughing!). The Bucks have split all head-to-head meetings of the “LeBron Era” Heat, have three guards that can catch fire on any given night (Brandon Jennings, JJ Redick, and Monta Ellis), and have four shot-blockers that can protect the rim (Larry Sanders, Samuel Dalembert, Ekpe Udoh, and Joel Przybilla). Don’t be surprised to see an even series heading into game 5 (okay, we’re looking too far ahead).
Keys to Victory: For L.A., Gasol’s ability to pull his defender out of the paint will give Howard some extra breathing room to operate. If Gasol’s racking up 5+ assists and draining 20-footers, this game is in the bag. On the flip side, I actually think a bit of Hack-a-Dwight may come in handy. They definitely should not employ it as extensively as the Magic did a couple of weeks ago (NBA-record 39 FT attempts), but just enough to break up the Lakers’ rhythm on offense. As noted above, it’s not like they don’t have enough big men with fouls to give!
Prediction: L.A. wins 105 – 97.
It’s a classic matchup of offense vs. defense. Houston’s offense is predicated on 3-point shooting (1st in attempts) and getting to the line (5th). Memphis’ defense is predicated on keeping their opponent’s 3-point attempts low (3rd) and limiting free throw attempts (6th). It will be interesting to see how Omer Asik, the league leader in total rebounds, will fare against Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Another juicy matchup will be James Harden versus Tony Allen. Harden is #1 in Offensive Win Shares among all guards, while Allen is #1 in Defensive Rating among all guards.
Keys to Victory: The last time these two met, the Rockets embarrassed the Grizzlies, dropping 121 on Memphis – the most they’ve given up all season, by a 15-point margin! Houston essentially pitched a perfect game having better team stats than Memphis in every category. Of those categories, the assist column is their key to victory. If they can move the ball as fluidly as they did in December and amass 25+ dimes, they’ll have themselves another win. For Memphis, they’re #1 in field goals made and attempted. They’ll need to do a better job of rotating and closing out on 3-point attempts.
Prediction: Memphis wins 97 – 91.
What a rough 24 hours for Kevin McHale’s crew! McHale should be applauded if he can walk out of tonight’s game with a split on this back-to-back AND maintaining a spot. Jeremy might go Linsane (sorry) having to face the NBA’s top 3 in Steal% on consecutive nights (Eric Bledsoe, Chris Paul, and Mike Conley). The Clippers are in a tight battle with Denver and Memphis for the third spot, with an outside chance at #1. Did you know that there are approximately 13 games left for each team and we could have the following playoff matchups in the West’s FIRST ROUND: Oklahoma City vs. Houston (Harden-mania) and Clippers vs. Lakers (Battle of L.A.).
Keys to Victory: The Clippers have won both games against the Rockets this season by beating them at their own game – draining threes and getting to the line. If they can get three-point production from at least two of Matt Barnes, Chauncey Billups, and Jamal Crawford, then the Clips can chalk up a third win over the Rockets. For Houston, they’ll need a superstar game from their superstar, Harden, who missed the last game against L.A. Look for the Bearded One to score 30+ and getting to the line at least 14 times.
Prediction: Houston wins 110 – 108.
Whether or not the Heat are gunning for their 30th consecutive victory by the time they visit the AT&T Center, this is still a huge matchup and quite possibly a Finals preview. When they faced earlier this season, Gregg Popovich told his Big Three to stay home, as they were in the midst of playing four road games in five nights. Pop was fined $250K, but almost had the last laugh as his Spurs almost beat the Heat on their home floor. This time around they have Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili in the lineup PLUS they’re on their home floor. Outside of when Erik Spoelstra rests his starters in the final week of the season, this is the only remaining game in Miami’s schedule that may result in a loss.
Keys to Victory: Miami needs to get out to a hot start. They’ve managed to mount amazing double-digit comebacks against the Knicks, Celtics, and Cavaliers during this streak, but they shouldn’t expect to just flip the switch against the team with the second-best record. San Antonio’s big men, Duncan and Tiago Splitter need to own the boards. 20 – 25+ rebounds against the league’s worst rebounding team may be enough to end this historic streak.
Prediction: San Antonio wins 103 – 92.
Last Week: 4 – 3
Season: 68 – 51