While the world, including me, fawns over the recent run of success for the Denver Nuggets, there is another team quietly finding its identity. After a strong 113-103 win over Phoenix on Thursday night, the Los Angeles Clippers improved to 11-4 SU and ATS since the All-Star break, and their defense stole the show once again.
The Clippers limited the Suns to just 1.093 points per possession in the second half and improved their second-half defensive rating to 107.9 per 100 possessions. Los Angeles has been the fifth-best defensive team in the league since the break, and all the while their offense continues to be lethal.
Los Angeles is the best shooting team in the league, and that showed up in a big way yesterday. The Clippers went 18-of-35 from deep against the Suns, and Kawhi Leonard was dominant in the third quarter against Phoenix, scoring 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting while helping the Clippers score 1.318 points per possession. He even gave us this spectacular dunk over DeAndre Ayton.
The Clippers have been a largely inconsistent team all season long, but the stretches of competence show us how good this team can really be. If this turnaround on defense is legit the league needs to be on notice.
Updated injury reports can be found here.
Updated odds for every game can be found here.
*Indicates team is on second leg of a back-to-back
The Main Event
Chicago Bulls* at Atlanta Hawks (-3, 227.5)
Slowly but surely the Chicago Bulls are starting to take the shape of a playoff team. Since acquiring Nikola Vucevic the Bulls are only 3-4 SU but 5-2 ATS, and in their last five games they are a perfect 5-0 ATS with a 117.2 offensive rating. Their starting lineup of Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine, Patrick Williams, Thaddeus Young and Vucevic are %plussign.0 in 128 possessions together, according to Cleaning The Glass. It is an extremely small sample size, but that paired with the results show the beginnings of something positive in the Windy City.
Chicago must try to keep the positive momentum going against Atlanta which had its four-game winning streak snapped by Memphis on Wednesday night. The Hawks have been a different team since Nate McMillan took over as interim head coach, posting a 13-5 SU/12-6 ATS record with a +5.3 net rating in his time at the helm. The biggest change for Atlanta has been its offense, specifically its shooting. When McMillan took over Atlanta averaged just 112.7 points every 100 possessions and shot 35.8% from deep. Since then, the Hawks offensive rating is 116.5 and they’re shooting 40.2% on 33.0 3-point attempts per game. However, their defense has not changed much and that is where Atlanta is vulnerable.
The Hawks are giving up 111.2 points every 100 possessions since the beginning of March, and in their five losses they have allowed an averaged 128.6 points per 100 possessions. Lately, Atlanta’s interior defense has been lacking. They already rank 20th in frequency of opponent attempts at the rim, and in their last nine games that has caught up with them. Opponents have averaged 23.2 attempts at the rim and shot 67.9% on those shots. Chicago takes the eighth-most attempts within four feet of the basket, and they shoot 65.3% as a team. If the Hawks are going to continue to give up shots in the restricted area then the Bulls will be happy to oblige.
Chicago’s defense will be tested in its own right though. With Vucevic on the floor they’re allowing 119.4 points every 100 possessions. Vucevic is a talented offensive player, but he has never been a stellar rim protector. The Bull have allowed opponents to shoot 71.7% at the rim in his time on the floor, and 37.9% from deep. The Hawks will be able to take advantage of that weakness.
The Co-Main Event
Memphis Grizzlies (-2, 213.5) at New York Knicks
The hottest team in the league continued their winning ways on Wednesday with a win and cover over Atlanta. Memphis has covered its last six games, and in the last 13 games they are 9-4 SU/11-2 ATS with a +5.1 net rating. The Grizzlies have been playing a solid brand of defense, giving up just 108.1 points per 100 possessions to opponents, but their offense has been the biggest story lately. Over the last five games Memphis has averaged 121.1 points every 100 possessions while shooting 42.0% on 35.2 3-point attempts. The Grizzlies are the league’s 23rd-ranked shooting team so there is a worry that this offense will disappear like it did in the loss to Utah.
New York is not the most skilled offensive team in the league though, and that has led to small skid. The Knicks are 1-4 SU in their last five games, but they continue to cover numbers and have covered their last three games. On the season, New York ranks 24th in offensive efficiency, and over the last 12 games their efficiency has dropped to 107.5 points every 100 possessions. The Knicks have been getting by with a defense that is only allowing 103.6 points every 100 possessions over the same stretch, but that clearly is not a sustainable formula.
Memphis will not have De’Anthony Melton or Justise Winslow on the court tonight, and Brandon Clarke is doubtful to play. However, all three have missed some extended amount of time, so their absences are factored in to the number for this game already.
Minnesota Timberwolves at Boston Celtics (-9, 228)
The Celtics have failed to cover their last two games, and the culprit this time around is offense. Against Philadelphia and New York, Boston averaged just 1.031 points per possession despite shooting 39.2% from beyond the arc. The Celtics had nothing in the halfcourt against their previous opponents, averaging less than 0.815 points per play when the game was slowed down. However, Minnesota does not offer much resistance on defense, so there is an opportunity for Boston to bounce back today.
Minnesota is 5-3 ATS in its last eight games, and that is due to an offense that has averaged 110.7 points per 100 possessions. They rank 25th in defensive efficiency over that same stretch (115.2) and that has led to their 3-5 SU record. Boston’s biggest problem this season has been an inconsistent defense, and Minnesota has the firepower to exploit that. It is likely why we’ve seen this number move ever so slightly in favor of the road team.
Indiana Pacers (-4.5, 219.5) at Orlando Magic
Indiana scored a big win on Wednesday against Minnesota despite the absences of Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon. Those three are questionable to play again tonight, but the market still has them 4.5 points better than Orlando. The Magic have been undervalued by the market since the trade deadline, but lately they have regressed. They are 0-3 SU/1-2 ATS over their last three games with a -24.2 net rating, and their defense has completely imploded, giving up 1.321 points per possession to their previous three opponents. If Indiana is short-handed again, can it pull out another big win over one of the worst teams in the league?
Philadelphia 76ers (-7.5, 225.5) at New Orleans Pelicans
Lonzo Ball is back on the injury report and Brandon Ingram, who has missed five straight games, is questionable yet again. If these two miss the game, it is hard to make a case for New Orleans.
Since the Pelicans’ trio of Zion Williamson, Ball and Ingram started missing time with injurie,s the team has gone 1-4 SU and ATS with a -11.8 net rating. Their defense has allowed 117.5 points every 100 possessions, but that is what we can expect when a bad defensive team loses three starters. The biggest issue for New Orleans without its three best players has been an offense that can't score. The Pelicans are managing just 105.7 points per 100 possessions during this slide, and that will not be corrected until their stars return. Joel Embiid will play today, and if its just Zion Williamson on the court there does not seem to be a clear path to a cover here for New Orleans.
Charlotte Hornets at Milwaukee Bucks* (-8.5, 226.5)
Is Giannis Antetokounmpo playing? The Greek Freak has missed the last three games with a sore knee, and as a result Milwaukee’s defense has the third-worst defensive rating in the league over that short stretch (120.4). If Giannis is not on the floor, even a short-handed Charlotte team will be able to find success on offense. The Hornets have been really wild in four games since losing both Gordon Hayward and Malik Monk. They were blown out by Brooklyn and Boston, but scored wins over Indiana and Oklahoma City. Defensively, this team has struggled all year. Now, with their offense suffering due to injuries, that issue has shown itself in a big way. Milwaukee is still scoring 115.8 points per 100 possessions without Giannis, so this won't be a walk in the park for Charlotte tonight if he does not play.
San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets (-7, 218.5)
San Antonio is now 2-9 SU/3-8 ATS in its last 11 games after getting blown out by Denver earlier this week. Meanwhile, the Nuggets are 6-0 U/5-1 ATS since acquiring Aaron Gordon. Neither team has shown signs of straying from its current path. The Spurs have regressed on defense, giving up 115.6 points every 100 possessions during this losing streak. That defense -- which finished last season as one of the NBA's worst -- is finally showing up. San Antonio was always offensively challenged, so now that this defense is failing the results are getting ugly. Meanwhile, the Nuggets lead the league in net rating during this win streak (+ 12.3). Jamal Murray is questionable again, but his absence might not matter against an opponent of this caliber.