It is going to be a really interesting day of NBA Playoff games starting promptly at 2pm EST with the Bulls looking to take a commanding 3-1 lead over the more talented New Jersey Nets. The Bulls have shown in the last two games (if you could make yourself watch it… it was ugly) that hustle and physicality and sheer WILL can be enough to win. Can they muster that same effort a third straight night?
Effort won’t be a question in the 4:30 game between Memphis and the Clippers. These teams went seven games last year, and appear to be hell-bent on repeating the drama. However, effort will be the central theme in the 7pm contest between Indiana and Atlanta. The Pacers clearly ‘out-efforted’ the Hawks in Game Two (did you see the full-length pass for a layup with 0.9 seconds left in the third quarter? Ridiculous). Will Atlanta put up more resistance in front of what is left of their home fans?
But the real intrigue swirls around tonight’s finale; Oklahoma City at Houston. The Thunder were dealt the worst blow of the NBA season when it was announced Russell Westbrook would be having surgery to repair a torn meniscus and was out indefinitely. The presumptive favorite in the West is now in scramble mode. They should still get past Houston, but things are VERY up in the air out West. I personally can’t wait to see who steps up to fill the absence of Westbrook, both offensively and defensively.
Los Angeles Clippers at Memphis Grizzlies -3.5 (Total: 177)
Notice what has happened to the scoring as this series has drawn on… it has gotten tighter and lower each game. That is going to be a natural evolution as these teams figure each other out a bit and wrestle for tempo-control of the series. Like many NBA series, tempo and momentum favor the home team. I like the same thing happening tonight.
This game is going to be VERY physical, a style preferred by the defensive-minded Grizzlies. I like them to rough up Blake Griffin inside and limit his effectiveness again tonight. He had only six points after the first quarter on Thursday, thanks to the rough interior play of the Grizzlies, led by defensive player of the year, Marc Gasol (over Lebron?? Really?? But that’s a whole different column).
I think Memphis evens the series at two games apiece tonight, but 3.5 is a tough line. These two teams have played a ton of nail-biters in the past. I’ll lean Grizzlies covering, but my official pick tonight is a defensive-minded and physical game that stays under the 177 mark.
Free Pick: Total Points UNDER 177
Oklahoma City Thunder -1.5 at Houston Rockets (Total: 207)
All you people who have been clamoring that the Thunder can’t win a title WITH Russell Westbrook… well, not you’ll get a chance to find out if they have a better chance WITHOUT him. Westbrook is done indefinitely (though I can’t imagine he returns from torn meniscus surgery, even if they make the Finals), and someone is going to have to pick up the slack.
This could be liberating for Kevin Durant, as many have suggested, with the offense flowing even more completely through his skilled hands. The flip-side of that coin, is that the Thunder also become far easier to defend with the elimination of one athletic mismatch and the ability to instead focus solely on Durant. The truth is, someone is going to have to step up and be that second big-time option – but who? Kevin Martin is an obvious choice, but his offensive game is radically different from Westbrook’s. Serge Ibaka will see some additional touches but I am not sure he can get you 20 on a consistent basis (I’d wager he cannot). Suffice it to say, the Thunder will really miss James Harden from here on out, and even former backup point guard Eric Maynor.
Speaking of James Harden – I think he comes up big tonight. It is a home game for the Rockets. They nearly had game two, so there is little “we can’t beat these guys” going through anyone’s head, and, let’s face it – they know the injury to Westbrook is an opportunity to get back into this series.
I like them to explode offensively tonight and for the Thunder to play well in Russell’s absence, but be just a little offensively short tonight to get the win.
Free Pick: Houston Rockets +1.5