Collapse, when used as a noun, is defined as “a sudden failure of an institution or undertaking”, and that sounds exactly like what I watched last night in Portland. The Pelicans, who led by 17 points with just under six minutes left in the fourth quarter, gave up a 25-7 to Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers, and lost 125-124 in spectacular fashion after being given every opportunity to salt the game away.
In the waning seconds New Orleans would miss a pair of free throws, turn the ball over on a sideline out of bounds play and the commit a shooting foul up by a point on Lillard’s game-winning attempt. The mistakes were avoidable, the symptom of a young team, or a poorly coached one. Regardless, it should not have come as a surprise that the team with the 22nd-ranked net rating in clutch time (-8.6) folded under the relentless pressure of a veteran team like Portland.
The loss now puts the Pelicans two full games behind the Grizzlies for the final play-in spot with 32 games left to play. Last night, as the Pelicans were collapsing in the Pacific Northwest, The Night Cap co-host Matt Holt asked me if I believed New Orleans could make a second-half push into the postseason. I cited their poor defense as a reason why I did not believe this team had that kind of a run in them, and their defensive rating of 172.0 in the fourth quarter last night is a beautiful example of why I am so down on this Pelicans team.
For those who do not believe defense matters in the NBA anymore, may I present to you the New Orleans Pelicans? A team that has the seventh-best offense in non-garbage time minutes (117.1), but the 20th net rating (-0.6) and a 17-23 record because of a defense that gives up 117.7 points every 100 possessions. Defense matters in this league, and that is why the Pelicans are likely going to be home once the season ends, despite an expanded play-in tournament format.
The Main Event
Milwaukee Bucks (-4.5, 235.5) at Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia comes into tonight on a 6-0 SU/5-1 ATS run overall, but the story is their previous two contests which have been played with Joel Embiid. The 76ers have won both games without the MVP frontrunner, blowing out the Spurs and coming back to defeat the Knicks just last night. Through those two games Philadelphia held both opponents to under 100 points and just 1.01 points per possession. The 76ers perimeter defense contained New York and San Antonio, forcing them to go a combined 12-of-45 (26.6%) from beyond the arc. Philadelphia has always been a force defensively – They have the fourth-best defensive efficiency mark in the league at 109.3 points per 100 possessions – and their defense over these two games has been remarkable. But, it is one thing to do it as a short-handed unit against the 18th- and 24th-ranked offenses. Can you do it against Milwaukee?
The Bucks come in on 4-0 SU/2-2 ATS run of their own with an offense that has averaged 1.214 points per possession, and dropped at least 125 points in each game, since coming back from the All-Star break. It’s pretty clear Philadelphia will be tested here, and an area to watch tonight will be within four feet of the basket. In the two games without Embiid, while they have performed very well overall, the 76ers have had trouble keeping their two opponents out of the paint. The Spurs and Knicks combined to shoot 35-of-48 at the rim (72.9%) while drawing 10 shooting fouls and scoring 100 points in the paint. New York killed Philadelphia inside by shooting 83.3% on its 24 attempts within four feet, and struggling to keep teams out of the painted area does not bode well for a matchup against Giannis Antetokounmpo. With the Greek Freak on the floor Milwaukee takes 35.5% of their attempts at the rim and shoots 71.9% as a team. On the season, Philadelphia ranks sixth in rim defense, but that includes minutes with Embiid on the floor. When he is off the floor they give up 64.3% within four feet which would put them at 20th if that is what they allowed on the season.
The other factor in this equation is Philadelphia’s offense. Against the Spurs, their offense was a machine. Philly averaged 1.452 points per possession, killing San Antonio from mid-range (19-of-32, 59.4%) and deep (10-of-18, 55.6%) in non-garbage time minutes. However, New York bogged them down last night, limiting them to 1.042 points per possession and just 99 points. The 76ers averaged just 0.906 points per play in halfcourt situations and shot 41.1% from the floor. Against the Knicks their lack of shot creation, outside of Ben Simmons, really showed ad that worries in this game with Milwaukee. However, it’s not like the Bucks are perfect. Russell Westbrook dropped a 40-point triple-double on them a few nights ago, and in their final game against the Wizards a 28-point lead was cut to just five with 7:25 left in the fourth quarter.
Ultimately, the 76ers have the feel of a team that was the beneficiary of a soft schedule. Philadelphia has -3.9 net rating without Embiid on the floor, and that is due to an offense that musters just 108.1 points every 100 possessions without him. The betting market moved this line from 4.5 to six overnight, and I agree with the move.
The Co-Main Event
Charlotte Hornets at Denver Nuggets (-6.5, 231)
Charlotte heads to Denver with a 4-0 SU/3-1 ATS win streak in hand, looking for a more consistent effort from their defense. The Hornets needed an insane comeback against Sacramento on Monday night to extend their win streak, and it was largely due to a defense that allowed 116 points and 1.14 points per possession. As exciting as this team is, they are a relatively poor defense, especially at the rim where they rank 22nd in opponent shooting (65.2%), and the Kings exploited that with a 29-of-37 shooting night within four feet. That rim protection will be on display again tonight against a Nuggets team that does not take a ton of shots at the rim (31.4% frequency), but is eighth in shooting at the cup as a team (66.5%). Denver will likely be able to exploit Charlotte’s shoddy perimeter defense as well here. Opponents take a staggering 42.7% of their attempts from deep against the Hornets, and shoot 37.7% from that area of the floor. Charlotte happens to allow the most wide-open looks from 3-point range this season, and Denver is the seventh-best shooting team on wide-open 3-pointers this season (40.1%).
The Nuggets have their issues on defense as well, but will the Hornets be able to exploit them? For example, Denver gives up the worst shooting percentage at the rim in the league, allowing opponents to hit 69.4% of their attempts within four feet. But, Charlotte ranks 29th in shooting at the rim, hitting just 59.4% of their shot attempts. The Hornets do shoot very well from the corners (41.2%, 7th), an area that the Nuggets struggle to defend as well (40.8%, 20th), so we could see Charlotte’s shooting keep them inside this number.
Miami Heat* (-2, 221) at Memphis Grizzlies
Jimmy Butler is dealing with a sore ankle, so the market has shifted toward Memphis after opening Miami as the road favorite. If Butler does not play that is clearly a blow for a Heat team that is in the midst of a five-game winning streak, and an 11-1 SU/9-3 ATS run over the last 12 games. Without Butler this season Miami is 4-10 SU/5-8-1 ATS and with him off the floor they are outscored by 6.1 points every 100 possessions. If Butler does not go then Memphis clearly has an excellent opportunity to snap its 0-3 SU/1-2 ATS slide. The Grizzlies usually consistent defense has been burned its last two games, giving up a defensive rating of 123.8 in losses to the Thunder and Suns. Their offense, the more inconsistent unit, has been just that. In losses to Denver and Phoenix they were held to 1.042 and 0.989 points per possession, but they scored 1.196 points per possession in the loss to Oklahoma City. This game is dependent on Butler’s status. If he plays, Miami goes off as the favorite and the Heat’s suffocating defense will likely matchup well with the Grizzlies.
Los Angeles Clippers (-2.5, 227) at Dallas Mavericks
The Clippers bounced back from their loss to the Pelicans by beating the Mavericks 109-99 on Monday night. Quietly, Dallas actually put together a good shooting night in the loss to Los Angeles. They went a combined 29-of-57 (50.9%) at the rim and from the perimeter, but their struggle in two areas ultimately led to their downfall. First, they could not keep the Clippers out of the paint. Los Angeles scored 44 points from that area of the floor and shot 13-of-19 within four feet of the basket. Second, the Clippers were great in transition, scoring 18 fastbreak points while averaging 1.875 points per play. If the Mavericks can shore up some of their defensive issue, which has been a problem all season, there is a perfectly plausible bounce back here for the home team.
Brooklyn Nets (-3.5, 232.5) at Indiana Pacers
Brooklyn keeps winning, but the covers are starting to disappear. The Nets maintained their winning ways against the Knicks on Monday with a 117-112 win, but could not keep an 11-point fourth quarter lead for the cover. They are now 13-1 SU/10-3 ATS over the last 14 games, and tonight they visit Indiana to take on the Pacers team that they defeated on Feb. 10 to start this current run. Indiana is coming off of a blowout loss in Denver and is now 2-7 SU/1-7-1 ATS in its previous nine games. This lack of success for the Pacers extends back to a Jan. 17 to the Clippers. Since that loss Indiana is 9-17 SU/7-19 ATS with a -3.2 net rating, and that have covered consecutive games just twice. Caris LeVert is now with the team, but how much does alter the power rating of a team that is playing at this low of a level for 26 games?
Sacramento Kings at Washington Wizards (-3, 245.5)
After a blown fourth-quarter lead to Charlotte on Monday Sacramento is now 3-13 SU and ATS in its last 16 games with a defense that is giving up 121.7 points every 100 possessions. That defense has led them to blow double-digit leads in two of their last three games, and their -6.2 net rating over this stretch is the fifth-worst in the league despite having the 10th-best offense. That offense could be a matchup issue for Washington today though. The Kings rank fifth in rim shooting this season (67.8%), and they face a Wizards defense that ranks 24th in that category on defense (65.6% allowed). Sacramento takes the 10th-most attempts in the mid-range area of the floor and shoots the 10th-highest percentage from there (43.4%). Washington ranks 30th in opponent frequency of mid-range attempts and 24th in opponent mid-range shooting. The matchups are there for the Kings, but can bettors trust them for an entire game?
Golden State Warriors (-11, 2226.5) at Houston Rockets*
Houston, we have hope! Early this morning ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported that Rockets big man, and Most Improved Player candidate, Christian Wood is on his way back. It has been 17 games since Wood injured his ankle against Memphis, and it has been 17 games since the Rockets have experienced a victory. Over those 17 games Houston is averaging just 101.3 points every 100 possessions and has been outscored by 16.7 points per 100 possessions. Both of those marks are last in the NBA over that stretch. With Wood on the floor the Rockets have a +4.4 net rating this season. It is clear how badly they need him, and like the Z Warriors on planet Namek, they’ve just ben holding out waiting for Goku – I mean Christian Wood – to come and save them.