The Philadelphia 76ers fell asleep at the wheel in the fourth quarter last night, costing bettors a cover after giving up a late 21-2 run that made a laugher much tighter than it should have been down the stretch. However, they put the clamps down and ended up walking out of the Wells Fargo Center with a 123-117 win and sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference. Joel Embiid dropped 39 points on 13-of-29 shooting by exploiting a very weak frontcourt, which is something bettors should get used to seeing if these two teams meet in the Eastern Conference Finals in a few months.
Brooklyn covered, but is still just 6-11 ATS in its last 17 games as the constant state of flux of their roster continues to weigh them down. As we approach the postseason, the rumblings of doubt about this team’s ability to put it all together when the postseason begins grow louder, but I still have faith. When the Nets’ Big 3 of James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have played together, Brooklyn outscores opponents by 13.1 points every 100 possessions and their offensive rating of 126.4 is one of the best in the league among qualified lineups. One would assume that Irving does not take personal days once the postseason, but crazier things have happened.
As I write this, news has broken of LaMarcus Aldridge retiring from the NBA due to him dealing with an irregular heartbeat. Aldridge has always been a player I have enjoyed watching and wish him good health going forward. His absence is a blow for Brooklyn, but one that I do not think changes things when it comes to their title chances. The Nets still have a quality small-ball center in Jeff Green and Nic Claxton continues to show positive momentum in his development. It sucks to see such a good player leave the game in the fashion he did, but whatever your assessment was of Brooklyn before this news, it should remain the same.
Updated odds for every game can be found here.
Updated injury reports for every game can be found here.
*Indicates team is on the second leg of a back-to-back.
The Main Event
Milwaukee Bucks* (-6, 228.5) at Atlanta Hawks
Our main event today is kind of a dud because we do not know if Trae Young or Giannis Antetokounmpo are going to participate. Young has been dealing with a calf contusion that has caused him to miss the last two games, while Antetokounmpo has a sore knee and he has been sidelined for five straight games while it heals. Both have been trending in the right direction, so it would be surprising to see both stars miss this contest.
Atlanta won games against Charlotte and Toronto without Young on the floor, thanks to a defense that only allowed 1.079 points per possession. It is not surprising that the Hawks were better defensively without Young, as their defensive efficiency improves by about two points in his minutes on the bench this season. However, their offensive rating plummets by 10.6 points without him, and that is the real test today if he is not on the floor. Against the Bulls or Raptors you can get away with averaging 1.121 points per possession, but the Bucks, even without Giannis, are an effective offensive team that has a 119.8 offensive rating in the last two games without him.
Where Milwaukee really suffers without Antetokounmpo is on defense. This season the Bucks’ defensive rating falls from 108.4 with him on the floor to 115.4 without him. Milwaukee outscores opponents by + 10.1 points every 100 possessions in Giannis’ minutes, but is outscored by 0.5 points when he is out of the game. If Young is able to play but Antetokounmpo is not the Bucks’ defense could be in some trouble, as the Hawks drop 118.6 points every 100 possessions with him Young in control of the offense.
Since Nate McMillan took over as interim coach, the Hawks have the sixth-best offense in the league and are outscoring opponents by 5.5 points every 100 possessions. They also have better offensive and net ratings than Milwaukee over that stretch. In those 21 games, we have seen the Hawks’ offense move away from the basket and more toward the mid-range area of the floor.
Atlanta has attempted 34.9% of their attempts from mid-range under McMillan and is taking about 1.6 fewer 3-point attempts per game. The Hawks are shooting 45.5% on those mid-range attempts, which would put them in the top five of the league if they shot that for the season, and the Bucks rank 19th in opponent mid-range shooting (42.6%). Is that just an anomaly for a team that prioritizes rim protection, or is it a true weakness that Atlanta can exploit?
If the Hawks have to deal with the Greek Freak tonight, then they better watch out. With Antetokounmpo on the floor Milwaukee dominates at the rim, taking 35.1% of their attempts within four feet while shooting 72.3% on those attempts. Rim protection has been the weak link of Atlanta’s defense this season. Opponents take their shots at the hoop at the exact same rate as the Bucks with Giannis on the floor (35.1%), but they only shoot 63.4% on those attempts, which puts Atlanta at ninth in opponent shooting within four feet. However, if you’re giving up those looks you can expect Giannis to finish at a higher clip. In fact, when these two teams met in January, the Bucks dominated in the restricted area with a 25-of-29 shooting performance.
The Co-Main Event
Boston Celtics (-6, 212.5) at Los Angeles Lakers
Has Boston actually figured it out? After a win in Portland on Tuesday night, the Celtics are now 8-4 SU/7-4-1 ATS in their last 12 games with a + 6.6 net rating. Their defense, which has been plagued with inconsistent play all season long, has allowed just 108.2 points every 100 possessions during this run. Color me skeptical, but all we have to go on is the results -- and those have been great for Boston recently. Now, they go to Los Angeles to face a Lakers team that has been doing a solid job treading water without its star players on the floor.
Los Angeles handled Charlotte last time out to improve to 6-7 SU and ATS since losing LeBron James to an ankle injury. The offense is severely limited with the personnel available, so it’s not alarming to see this team average just 103.4 points every 100 possessions in those 13 games. Their defense has been picking up the slack, and as a result the Lakers have been outscored by just 0.8 points every 100 possessions because they only give up a 104.2 defensive rating. That defense will need to be on display tonight against a Boston team that has averaged 114.8 points per 100 possessions during its winning streak.
Tonight, this matchup will be won along the perimeter. The Lakers have been fantastic defending the 3-point line over these 13 games, allowing opponents to shoot just 31.3% from deep. Boston has lived along the arc during this 12-game run, taking 44.3% of its attempts from 3-point range while shooting 38.2% from that area of the floor. Los Angeles has been willing to funnel teams inside, and that shows as they have allowed opponents to take 35.9% of their attempts at the rim, but that just is not the Celtics' game. Boston has taken just 30.1% of its shots within four feet during this win streak, and on the season it ranks 23rd in rim frequency. If the perimeter shots aren't falling for the Celtics, what happens to their offense?
Golden State Warriors (-8, 224.5) at Cleveland Cavaliers*
Golden State is in the midst of a soft spot on the schedule, and the team is taking advantage. The Warriors are 4-1 SU and ATS in its last five games and they come in on a 3-0 SU and ATS run after pummeling the Thunder 147-109 on the road. Their offense has been insanely efficient, averaging 119.5 points per 100 possessions, but what would you expect when three of your four opponents rank 24th, 25th and 26th in defensive efficiency and another was playing without its best defender in Giannis Antetokounmpo? Golden State is not this good on offense, but we shouldn't expect much to change tonight when they face the 21st-ranked defense in Cleveland.
The Cavaliers are playing good basketball, posting a 4-1 ATS record over their past five games while going 3-2 SU. Cleveland’s own offense has begun to peak as well, averaging 117.8 points per 100 possessions during this five-game run, but like the Warriors we can expect this to regress. Collin Sexton is questionable to play tonight after missing the win over Charlotte last night, and they will likely need him today against Golden State. The Warriors’ offensive surge might be somewhat fraudulent, but their defensive play is not. Golden State has consistently sat within the top 10 of defensive efficiency and they should be able to defend the league’s 29th-ranked offense with consistency.
Sacramento Kings* at Phoenix Suns (-9, 225.5)
The Kings lost their eighth consecutive game last night, dropping a home game 123-111 to Washington. Over this losing streak, Sacramento has been outscored by 11.7 points every 100 possessions and their usually reliable offense has been held to a 104.3 rating. Phoenix has won 10 of 11 contests heading into Thursday night, but the Suns are only 6-5 ATS in those 11 games. It is pretty clear the power rating for the Suns has peaked, and tonight is just another example of that. After opening up as a nine-point favorite, the market pushed Phoenix up to 12.5-point favorite at most shops. If bettors are late to the party, they are buying at the top of the market with the Suns, something that is not beneficial to their bottom line.