Friday's NBA playoff games find the respective underdogs of each series facing three decidedly different fates.
The Boston Celtics, mired in an 0-2 hole because their offense has yet to come out of hibernation, stand poised to ride the emotional wave of their first home game in three weeks to a victory. While that result might provide some fleeting hope for a floundering Boston squad, the likelier scenario is that it'll represent a minor bump in the road for a superior New York Knicks outfit.
In a far bleaker situation, the Los Angeles Lakers face the ruthlessly efficient (and healthy) San Antonio Spurs with a third-string backcourt. Injuries have dogged the Lakers all year, and they're really taking a bite out of them now.
Finally, the Golden State Warriors' fate in Game 3 rests almost entirely on the health of Stephen Curry's ankle. That's hardly new, but as the low seed with the best upset odds of the three in action on Friday, the Dubs need their star guard more than ever. If he's good to go and Denver doesn't find a way to space the floor, the Warriors will take control of the series.
Which teams will derail the favorites, and which will fail to get off the tracks as the higher-seeded trains come through on Friday?
New York Knicks vs. Boston Celtics
Games 1 and 2 were largely decided on the basis of the Celtics' inability to score. After posting just 78 points in a series-opening loss, Boston followed up that effort with a paltry 71 on 37 percent shooting in Game 2.
Turnovers have been a problem in both games, but a slower pace and a decline in the inexplicably bad post-entry passes by the Celtics led to a reduction from a crippling turnover total of 20 in Game 1 to a more manageable 11 in Game 2.
Boston has defended well in this series, making Carmelo Anthony a volume shooter and daring the Knicks' supporting players to do damage. But without any offensive firepower and a horrendous bench performance, the Celtics find themselves in an 0-2 hole.
Fortunately for Boston, an emotional crowd should provide a massive boost in the team's first home game since April 10.
In addition to said emotional lift, there's some tangible evidence that home cooking is precisely what the Celtics need to notch the first win of the series. No team had a bigger disparity in home-road performance during the regular season than the Celtics did. With a 27-13 mark in Boston and a 14-27 record elsewhere, the Celtics have proved to be a much different opponent in their own arena.
And if familiar confines can remedy just one thing for Boston, it had better be that awful bench. Knicks sixth man J.R. Smith has actually outscored the entire cast of Celtics reserves by himself over the course of Games 1 and 2, amassing a 34-23 advantage in points. Jason Terry and Courtney Lee will need a home-crowd boost more than anyone.
The Knicks have done enough to win a pair of playoff games despite the clearly less-than-healthy status of Tyson Chandler. If he looks any better than he has in the series' first two contests, New York's offense takes on a different tone. Instead of relying on whipping the ball around the perimeter, a healthy Chandler would allow the Knicks to attack Boston with a few pick-and-rolls.
And everyone knows his defensive value.
New York is a better team than the Celtics are, and it'll almost certainly take this series. But the combination of a big emotional lift from the home crowd and some good, old-fashioned Celtic pride should be enough to help Boston notch a narrow victory.
Prediction: Celtics 94, Knicks 92
San Antonio Spurs vs. Los Angeles Lakers
You know it's been a rough season when injuries to Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks feel like devastating losses. That's where the Lakers are right now, though, and there's a strong likelihood that the backups to the backups are primed to start at the guard positions in Game 3.
If Steve Nash, who's literally been on pins and needles lately (two epidurals and a cortisone shot within the last week), can start, L.A. will be spared the Chris Duhon-Andrew Goudelock duo in the backcourt.
But even if Nash is healthy enough to give it a go, his recent performance makes it clear that he's not remotely close to full strength.
The Lakers can't space the floor without capable shooters, and injuries have robbed them of nearly all of them. A quick look at L.A.'s combined shot chart from Games 1 and 2 shows just how ineffective the Lakers' perimeter shooters have been.
In addition, a lack of healthy, experienced (and/or quality) guards in L.A.'s rotation has led to persistent turnover problems. On the series, the Lakers are at a 31-17 disadvantage in the giveaway department. That's no way to beat a Spurs team that punishes mistakes and makes so few of its own.
San Antonio has proved that it knows how to handle L.A.'s predictable interior attack, so if it doesn't have to make any adjustments, there's little reason to believe in a different outcome than what we saw in the first two games of the series.
It'd be nice to imagine that the Lakers were in line for the same kind of home-court boost that the Celtics will receive, but L.A. fans have quietly been coming to terms with the fact that their team was lucky to even make the postseason. This isn't a fanbase that honestly believes its team can beat the Spurs.
So don't expect an emotional lift from a devoted crowd.
Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard will be on their own yet again, and without the ability to make any meaningful offensive adjustments against a Spurs team rounding into championship form, the Lakers won't be able to change the course of this series.
Prediction: Spurs 97, Lakers 88
Denver Nuggets vs. Golden State Warriors
The contest between the Nuggets and Warriors is the hardest one to figure of the three we'll see on Friday—and not just because it's the only series currently tied at 1-1.
Curry's ankle matters most, as he's the best player in the series and totally changes the way the Nuggets have to defend Golden State. But his status is up in the air:
Marcus Thompson @ThompsonScribe
Thanks to two days off, Curry said he "should" be able to play in Game 3 though sprained left ankle worsened - http://t.co/mt76eFq5fi4/26/2013, 4:16:12 AM
If he's right enough to play effectively, Curry gives the Warriors a massive advantage. He forces Denver to devote two defenders to him in order to get the ball out of his hands. And with a small-ball lineup capable of spacing the floor, driving and hitting a ridiculous percentage from long range, Golden State has proved its ability to take advantage of the Nuggets' aggressive defensive approach.
On the other hand, if Kenneth Faried's own ankle sprain has improved enough for him to log big minutes, his presence could force the Warriors to abandon their effective, undersized approach.
Overall, the Warriors actually do appear to be the better team in this series. A huge performance from Andre Miller in Game 1 was the only thing preventing a 2-0 sweep for Golden State in a tough Denver environment.
Because the Nuggets can't space the floor on offense, they're entirely dependent on their transition game to score points. Even though that facet of their attack is flat-out excellent, the fact that it's the only way they can generate offense makes it an easy and obvious focal point for the Warriors defense.
A zone look helped the Dubs force perimeter shots from the brick-happy Nuggets in Game 2 and made it easier for the Warriors to get back on defense (a nice side effect of zones).
In short, the Nuggets have to make some adjustments on both ends in order to avoid falling behind 2-1 on Friday. The absolutely electric environment in Oracle Arena won't provide the best conditions to make those critical tweaks.
Prediction: Warriors 112, Nuggets 109
*All stats via NBA.com and ESPN.com unless otherwise indicated.
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