Thursday night will be a turning point in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
LeBron James and the Miami Heat are primed to take a 3-0 series lead, but Brandon Jennings and the Milwaukee Bucks will try to steal one at home to keep an impossible dream alive.
Chris Paul and the Clippers are on the verge of blowing open their first-round matchup, while the Memphis Grizzlies need to exact revenge at home to stave off a third straight loss.
And then there are the still Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls, who head back to the Windy City intent on going up 2-1 on Deron Williams and the Brooklyn Nets.
With two teams facing the prospect of going down three games to none (Bucks and Grizzlies), and another two (Bulls and Nets) looking to break a current stalemate, desperation is in the air.
Which teams will find a way to emerge from their Game 3 bout victorious, and which are destined to leave the arena disappointed, potentially on the verge of elimination?
There is no such thing as a meaningless playoff game, and the trio of contests on Thursday night's docket are no exception.
Miami Heat at Milwaukee Bucks
This one is going to be quick, but for the Bucks, it will be anything but painless.
The Heat won the first two games of the series at home by an average margin of 17.5 points. They haven't been knocking down their threes at a consistent rate (31 percent) and have committed an excessive amount of turnovers (16.5), but they've had no trouble pulling away late.
On the other side, Milwaukee has offered little resistance. The Bucks are knocking down just 24.6 percent of their deep balls and have managed to outscore Miami just once in eight quarters of play.
Surprisingly, the Bucks have managed to limit the Heat's opportunities in transition. Each team has notched just 22 total fast-break points through the first two games. Miami is killing Milwaukee in the paint, though, tallying 98 points down low to the Bucks' 74.
For the Bucks to even have a puncher's chance at snagging a Game 3 victory, they are going to have to limit the Heat's opportunities at the rim.
They also need to do a better job on the glass. Miami was the NBA's worst rebounding team during the regular season, but is a plus-25 on the boards thus far. Milwaukee ranked fifth in the league in rebounds per game leading into the playoffs (44) and can't afford to allow one of its greatest strengths to become a weakness.
Following their loss in Game 2, the Bucks are now 1-5 against the Heat on the year. The bright side? Their only victory came at home.
No one expected Milwaukee to win, or even come close to winning this series (except maybe Jennings). Few even saw the Bucks procuring a single victory. Stealing one at home would then be the ultimate morale booster.
Unfortunately for the Bucks, it just doesn't seem possible. The Heat haven't played their best basketball by any means, yet they've had little to no trouble securing two straight victories.
A third one seems on the way.
Prediction: Heat 103, Bucks 94
Brooklyn Nets at Chicago Bulls
I've gone back and forth on this series more times than I'd care to admit.
Initially, I had the Bulls pulling off the upset. After watching Game 1 and seeing how out of sync Joakim Noah was, though, I pulled a Benedict Arnold and picked the Nets in six. Following a monster performance from the injured Noah in Game 2 (five fouls and four turnovers aside), I'm back on Chicago's bandwagon.
Which is where I'm going to stay.
Brooklyn has so many offensive weapons, but in most games, scoring appears to be an arduous task. If the Nets can't get into the paint, they struggle to put points on the board. They torched the Bulls on the inside in Game 1 (56-36), but against 25 minutes of Noah, they lost the battle in Game 2 (42-30).
The key for the Nets is Deron Williams. Brook Lopez is going to score his points no matter what. As a big man who can play inside out, he's difficult to defend, even for Noah. Williams' offense, on the other hand, is directly related to his ability to get into the paint.
Chicago failed to keep him outside the paint for Game 1, so Deron smoked them for 22 points and the Nets went on to win rather easily, 106-89. As you can see, eight of his shot attempts came at the rim, and he converted seven of them.
Fast forward to Game 2, and the Bulls (largely thanks to Noah) cut off Williams' dribble penetration. Brooklyn's point man got just two shots at the rim and was goaded into taking five three-pointers, missing all of them.
The Bulls will look to follow a similar blueprint in Game 3. They're perfectly fine with Williams dishing out between seven and 10 assists so long as the ball is being forced out of his hands or he's living on the perimeter.
Chicago's defensive assignments only become easier if Joe Johnson's battle with plantar fasciitis forces him to sit out. He's a game-time decision for Thursday night.
Sounds Like Joe Johnson Will Give it a Go Tonight in Game 3 http://t.co/YZsEfnGgzK4/25/2013, 1:46:03 PM
Even if he plays, the Nets will have their work cut out for them. Johnson shot an efficient 7-of-13 from the field in Game 1, but was just 6-of-18 in Game 2. Scoring is how he contributes, and if he can't generate the necessary lift under his jumper or precision movements within his isolation sets, Brooklyn's offense is in for another long night.
Noah is also combating a foot injury, but after going for 11 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks in just 25 minutes on Monday, he is a go once again.
Chicago Bulls @chicagobulls
http://t.co/lrx1IT1nrg: @JoakimNoah ready to play through pain again in Game 3 http://t.co/aCz4n1js4G #NETSvBULLS4/24/2013, 8:34:45 PM
After stealing one at the Barclays Center, the Bulls have built some momentum.
Noah isn't healthy, but he's active. Carlos Boozer has been making some nice decisions on the offensive end. Luol Deng picked up his defense in Game 2.
Expect another grind-it-out battle in Game 3—one that the Bulls will ultimately win.
Prediction: Bulls 93, Nets 89
Los Angeles Clippers at Memphis Grizzlies
The Clippers' 93-91 victory in Game 2 was exactly how this series was supposed to go. Not because Los Angeles was guaranteed to win, but because it was an epic defensive battle.
Memphis fell at the hands of the Clippers in Game 1, 112-91, and it wasn't pretty. Though the Grizzlies matched Los Angels' production in the paint, they were killed on the glass (47-23).
Adjustments were made in Game 2, allowing Memphis to remain competitive. The rebounding was about even, though the Clippers had a slight edge (40-38), and the Grizzlies limited their opponent to 2-of-15 shooting from beyond the arc.
The Grizzlies were horrible from deep as well (2-of-11), but coercing Los Angeles into threes paid dividends. Still, the Grizzlies had problems keeping the Clippers outside the paint once again, as they managed to score 50 points on the inside. Memphis' saving grace was pitching in 46 of its own.
What the Grizzlies must continue to do is limit the Clippers' fast-break opportunities. They are one of the most dangerous teams in transition, but Memphis has managed to hold them to just 23 combined points in transition through two games.
Winning the battle in the paint is also a necessity. Either the Grizzlies need to hold the Clippers to fewer than 40 points on the inside, or they need to capitalize off opportunities at the rim themselves. Scoring more than 91 points wouldn't hurt either.
This is one of the more complex playoff matchups right now. So much goes into how both teams can defeat one another.
Memphis is offensively anemic, which allows the Clippers to play it safe on defense. They've done just that the past two games and haven't relinquished more than 91 points. Including Monday's victory, they're now 34-1 when allowing fewer than 91 points on the year.
For the Grizzlies, it comes down to limiting Los Angeles' offensive arsenal. The Clippers are one of the few teams in the league that can both score and defend. The only way Memphis beats them is if this becomes a defensive battle, and the only way this becomes a defensive battle is if the Grizzlies bring the Clippers offense down to their level.
Now playing at home, down 2-0 and with the bitter taste of Paul's game-winner still in their mouths, the Grizzlies are desperate and will respond the only way they know how—by playing tighter defense.
Game 3 will be similar to Game 2, and the outcome will come down to who can defend better, for longer.
Prediction: Grizzlies 95, Clippers 92
Note: All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, NBA.com and ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.
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