With the first round of the NBA playoffs reaching its latter stages, teams are beginning to enter desperation mode. Because of that, the level of intensity and competitiveness will continue to rise.
Sunday's slate of playoff action features four series that are still very much up for grabs. All of them sit at 2-1, which means that teams either have an opportunity to tie things up or take a huge advantage over their opponents.
In addition to a breakdown of where the playoff picture currently stands, here are the latest predictions for who will come out on top in every Sunday matchup.
NBA Playoff Bracket
Updated NBA playoff bracket courtesy of ESPN.com.
Picks for Sunday's Games
|Bulls at Wizards||WAS 2-1||4||1 p.m.||ABC||CHI|
|Clippers at Warriors||LAC 2-1||4||3:30 p.m.||ABC||LAC|
|Raptors at Nets||BKN 2-1||4||7 p.m.||TNT||TOR|
|Rockets at Trail Blazers||POR 2-1||4||9:30 p.m.||TNT||HOU|
Sunday's Key Players
The Houston Rockets currently find themselves in a 2-1 hole against the Portland Trail Blazers, and the struggles of superstar guard James Harden have everything to do with that fact. Harden performed well below expectations in Games 1 and 2, and while he came through with 37 points in a Game 3 win, it is still blatantly obvious that he isn't at his best.
Prior to Houston's much-needed triumph in Game 3, Harden took responsibility for the Rockets' struggles and put the onus on himself to play better moving forward, according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.
"All me. All me," Harden said. "It's all been a learning experience for me. This will be another one that I will get through. It's my job to go out there and do it. I just have to be more precise and have more thrust in my game."
Harden took his own advice to heart as his level of aggressiveness was heightened in Game 3. Harden wasn't shy about taking shots, and that led to a Rockets playoff record of 35 field-goal attempts, per ESPN Stats & Info:
The bearded one only connected on 13 of those attempts, though, and he must be more efficient in order for Houston to win this series. According to HoopsHype, Harden is now shooting a meager 32.9 percent for the series:
James Harden is shooting 32.9 percent from the field in the playoffs.— HoopsHype (@hoopshype) April 26, 2014
Center Dwight Howard's excellent play in the paint has helped cover for some of Harden's mistakes, and the Rockets have had an opportunity to win all three games. If not for Harden's issues, they would likely be up 3-0 right now.
If nothing else, Harden appeared to wake up a bit in Game 3, so look for his progression to continue in a Game 4 victory for Houston.
The Toronto Raptors enjoyed their best season in franchise history this year with 48 victories thanks in large part to the emergence of DeMar DeRozan. The USC product became Toronto's unquestioned go-to player with a points-per-game average of 22.7, and he has managed to look even better at times for the Raptors in the playoffs.
Although Toronto trails the veteran-laden Brooklyn Nets 2-1 in the first round, it has acquitted itself quite well. DeRozan may have had some jitters in Game 1, as he didn't play like himself, but he has since bounced back with consecutive 30-point performances.
DeRozan appears to be coming into his own, and he has garnered plenty of praise, including some from polarizing forward Metta World Peace:
Win or Lose , I'm extremely proud of DeRozan. After playing ball with him in the summer and seeing play well on the road 👍👍👍👍👍👍👍👍👍👍— Metta World Peace (@MettaWorldPeace) April 26, 2014
As one of the best perimeter defenders in recent memory, World Peace knows a thing or two about elite scorers. While DeRozan may not be elite yet, he is quickly approaching that level. Provided DeRozan continues to rack up 30-point games and potentially leads the Raptors past the Nets, he may start to gain some of the national exposure he so richly deserves.
The Raptors aren't technically in a must-win situation, but they probably feel as though they need to beat Brooklyn in Game 4 to keep their second-round hopes alive. DeRozan knows that, and he'll put the team on his back.
Which player will perform best during Sunday's NBA playoff action?
Blake Griffin's game truly came together this season, and he firmly established himself as one of the best, if not the best, power forwards in basketball. Griffin has continued to bolster his reputation in the playoffs as well, as he and the Los Angeles Clippers hold a 2-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors in the first round.
Golden State jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the series, and it looked as though Los Angeles might be in trouble. The Clips have since rebounded with consecutive victories, though, and Griffin has been the catalyst. Griffin is shooting nearly 67 percent from the field over the Clippers' past two contests, and he entered rarefied air in franchise history with two straight 30-point performances as well, per the team's official Twitter account:
Blake Griffin with 31 points. He's the first #Clippers player since Elton Brand in May 2006 to score 30+ in back-to-back Playoff games— Los Angeles Clippers (@LAClippers) April 25, 2014
The Warriors simply haven't had an answer inside for Griffin thus far, and he hasn't shown any signs of slowing down. With point guard Chris Paul running the offense and receiving much of Golden State's defensive attention, Griffin has had plenty of real estate in which to operate.
Even if the Warriors attempt to double-team him in the paint, Griffin is strong enough and has enough post moves to be effective anyway. The Clippers are most definitely starting to build momentum, and that will continue in Game 4 with another fantastic showing from Griffin.
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