Just a few weeks ago, it seemed inevitable that the Lakers would continue their turnaround and surge into the playoffs. They had one of the easiest remaining schedules while the team they were chasing, Utah, had the NBA’s toughest. With a handful of games remaining, the boys from Salt Lake City have strung together some impressive victories, winning seven of their last eight, and may be able to end L.A.’s underachieving season earlier than anticipated. The Thunder are in a race of their own for home-court advantage throughout the West. After squandering an opportunity to overtake the Spurs while Tony Parker was injured, Oklahoma City sits one game out of first.
Keys to Victory: This is Kevin Durant‘s time to shine. He’s in a tight scoring race with Carmelo Anthony, while facing a possible first-round opponent who ranks in the bottom third in FG% and 3pt FG%. For Utah, stay aggressive all night long. They rank 2nd in the NBA in drawing fouls, which will help greatly against a Thunder squad that ranks 23rd in committing fouls. If the Jazz bigs can get Serge Ibaka and/or Kendrick Perkins in early foul trouble, they can attack Oklahoma City’s weak bench.
Prediction: Oklahoma City wins 102 – 97.
When these teams met two weeks ago, they played a nail-biter (Spurs won 100-99) that has us all salivating at a possible seven game series in the Conference Semis (or Finals). What’s been most impressive about George Karl’s team, is their record vs. the West’s best four teams (based on record). Denver is 9-5 against the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, and Grizzlies. As for San Antonio, it’s a crapshoot predicting who Gregg Popovich will start/sit from game to game. Home court advantage didn’t make a difference last year against Oklahoma City and, with one week remaining, he’s more concerned of the health of his veterans. That being said, he still has one of the deepest teams in the league and can win with any lineup he plays.
Keys to Victory: If San Antonio can shoot near or above their season average of 48%, they should win. The Nuggets are 29th in FG attempts allowed. Add those two numbers together and this could be a high-scoring affair for the Spurs. For Denver, Corey Brewer needs to have a solid game. Whether he’s starting for the injured Danilo Gallinari or facing the Spurs depleted bench, his contribution will go along way towards adding to Denver’s league-leading home record.
Prediction: Denver wins 110 – 99.
This is the time of year where teams that have locked up a playoff spot start resting their stars (read: Miami and San Antonio). That’s not the case with the Thunder. Russell Westbrook hasn’t missed a game……ever. Not in the NBA, or at UCLA, or in high school. Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, not only played in last year’s Finals, but also played in the Olympics. With an off-season that probably felt more like a long weekend, it’s quite remarkable that Oklahoma City have played at a similar level of excellence as last year (including the loss of James Harden). The boys from the Bay Area have picked up their play at the right time, as they prepare for their second playoffs appearance since Chris Webber left the team (1994!). They’ve won seven of their last nine, with David Lee playing like the All-Star he is, and Steph Curry balling like the All-Star he should be.
Keys to Victory: The aforementioned Westbrook needs to get his teammates involved. His ability to drive and kick will work wonders against the 24th ranked team in assists allowed. The Warriors aren’t getting far in this game (or in the playoffs) if their defense doesn’t step up. They rank 4th in opponent’s FG%, so keeping the Thunder below 45% may provide enough breathing room for their high-powered offense.
Prediction: Oklahoma City wins 112 – 104.
There are two very interesting ways of analyzing this game. Golden State will be riding the high of dismantling L.A. just two weeks earlier. On the flip side, the Warriors are playing the back-end of a back-to-back that’s sandwiched between playing the Thunder and Spurs. It would be in the best interest of the Warriors to hang on to the sixth spot, considering the Nuggets are currently third and dealing with injuries to Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari (who’s out for the season). As for L.A., they have the Jazz nipping at their heels, plus Utah owns the tiebreaker. Their remaining games are vs. San Antonio and Houston, who the Lakers have a combined 1-4 record against this season.
Keys to Victory: The Warriors were able to blitz the Lakers with a barrage of threes a couple of weeks ago. If they can get out to a quick start again, the Lakers’ leaky defense won’t be able keep Golden State at bay. For L.A., the answer is, and always has been, Kobe Bryant. Expect him to drop 40 and single-handedly try to carry his squad to victory. Remember, he’s the one that guaranteed the Lakers would make the playoffs!
Prediction: L.A. wins 114 – 110.
This is an intriguing matchup because in exactly one week, these two could very well be kicking off another seven-game series. If we can get excited over the 7-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns playing Don Nelson’s run-and-gun Warriors of last decade, why can’t we be just as hyped to see two of the league’s best defensive squads do battle? Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe rank 2nd and 3rd in Steal % respectively. Tony Allen is the only guard who ranks in the top 10 in Defensive Rating (8th), while Marc Gasol ranks 3rd in Defensive Win Shares. These two played arguably the most exciting playoff series last year, which included a furious 24-point Clipper comeback with only eight minutes remaining in game one. Although the Clippers won game seven in Memphis, they’d probably prefer to have that game at Staples Center.
Keys to Victory: These teams know each other extremely well, so there shouldn’t be any surprises. The winner of all three matchups this season has had the better FG%. In fact, the Grizzlies needed one of their best shooting efforts of the season (54%) to finally get a victory over their rivals. The catalyst of said victory was Marc Gasol, who was 10-14 from the field and will be looking to solidify his spot as leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. For the Clips, they’ve got one of the deepest benches in the league and will be looking to exploit that, since they’ve already clinched the Pacific Division. Jamal Crawford scored 29 in their first matchup, but only 2 in their last matchup. Look for Crawford to bounce back with 20+ if L.A. wants to nab home-court advantage in the first round.
Prediction: L.A. wins 95 – 79.
When choosing the most watchable game of the night, I’ll often have multiple great matchups to choose between. It’s partly a testament to the NBA’s schedule-makers, but mainly because there’s so much talent in the game. Today, for example, I could’ve gone with some solid playoff-atmosphere-like matchups, (Spurs/Lakers, Pacers/Knicks) but elected with Bulls/Heat because of the accompanying story lines. Even if he should be resting for the playoffs, don’t you think LeBron James wants to make a poster with Kirk Hinrich? Or block a Carlos Boozer dunk attempt? Or break Luol Deng‘s ankles? With only three games remaining, the only suspense remaining is if Chicago can steal home court from the Nets (2 games behind) and/or stave off the Hawks (1 game ahead). In either scenario, we could be seeing these two meeting again in the Conference Semis.
Keys to Victory: Whether or not James plays (I think so) a significant amount of time (I doubt), the Heat’s “B Squad” will likely have to carry Miami to victory. They’ll need to shoot the ball well (#1 in the NBA) and protect the ball (Chicago ranks 22nd in turnovers created). Using this combination should allow them enough room to grind out a victory. For Chicago, they won the previous match because they owned the boards. While that’s almost expected when you’re playing the league’s worst in rebounding, it also puts additional pressure on players that are getting bonus playing time in the absence of the Big 3.
Prediction: Chicago wins 90 – 81.
Last Week: 4 – 3
Season: 74 – 59