Welcome to the Eastern Conference play-in tournament preview. For updates throughout the day follow me on Twitter, or check out The Edge daily at 4 p.m. ET / 1 p.m. PT.
All game lines via VSiN NBA Odds page.
*Indicates team is on the second leg of a back-to-back
**Lines are opening numbers
#8 Cleveland Cavaliers @ #7 Brooklyn Nets (-8, 229.5)
Regular Season Series: BRK (3-1)
Brooklyn did what it needed to do and won its last four games to lock up the top seed in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament. As a reward, not only does the team get a home game, but they get to host Cleveland which they handled with relative ease in the regular season. Three of the meetings took place before the end of January, so the result worth focusing on is the one from just four days ago. The Nets put up 1.311 points per possession but needed a 35-19 fourth quarter to grab the win and cover at home. That game was representative of all the issues plaguing both teams, and it should give us an idea of how this matchup will play out Tuesday night.
Cleveland is 7-11 SU/5-13 ATS since losing Jarrett Allen to injury and their defense has suffered as a result. In those 18 games the Cavaliers have allowed 118.7 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time minutes, and they rank 21st in net rating over that span (-3.0). Without Allen on the floor Cleveland’s halfcourt defense has fallen apart, allowing 102.1 points per 100 plays which is lightyears from the 90.3 defensive rating in those situations with Allen. Their problem has been the inability to limit dribble penetration or close out on open shooters because of said penetration. In these 18 contests opponents have attempted 35.2% of their shots at the rim and 11.7% from the corners – both numbers ranking 24th in the league over this span – and the opposition has hit a staggering 42.2% of those corner 3-pointers. In their loss to Brooklyn four days ago Cleveland allowed the Nets to go 6-of-11 from the corners and average 1.011 points per play in the halfcourt, clearly showing us that Brooklyn can exploit the weaknesses that have plagued the Cavaliers over the last month.
Not all is lost for Cleveland in this matchup though, as Brooklyn’s massive weakness on defense will give them the chance to stay in this game and potentially pull the upset. The Cavaliers might have defended poorly in the halfcourt in that loss to the Nets, but so too did Brooklyn. In fact, Cleveland averaged an even better 1.024 points per play in halfcourt settings against Brooklyn in that game. The Nets perimeter defense is lacking in a big way. There is not a single defensive stopper who can match up with opposing guards and that was on display when Darius Garland dropped 31 points on 12-of-24 shooting from the floor in the loss. A look at their recent results confirms that theory. Tyrese Haliburton scored 17 points and dished 10 assists on 7-of-14 shooting, Kevin Porter and Jalen Green combined for 66 points on 51.0% shooting from the floor, Trae Young put up 36 points in a win last week and LaMelo Ball had 33 in Kyrie Irving’s home debut. Dynamic guard play can wreck the Nets’ defense, but the issue for the Cavaliers is they only really have one player to provide that.
The betting market has clearly adjusted this line after the result of a few days ago. Brooklyn opened -6.5 and closed -8.5 in a game they ended up winning by 11 points. Bettors are not getting much of a bargain with this line by my own numbers, as I made this just under that 8.5-point mark. The Nets’ defensive play always makes a play like this risky, and they have been extremely poor as a home favorite this season (5-25-1 ATS). Nothing for me here, but I do believe the Nets move on.
#10 Charlotte Hornets @ #9 Atlanta Hawks (-4.5, 238.5)
Regular Season Series: TIE (2-2)
This has the makings of an MMA match in which the two fighters meet in the middle and just exchange with little regard for their own lives. Both Atlanta and Charlotte are two of the worst defensive teams in this entire postseason – both regular and play-in – but both have incredible guard play with fantastic transition offense that could lead to fireworks. The Hornets finished the season 20th in non-garbage time defensive efficiency, allowing 113.6 points per 100 possessions. Their opponent was 26th in the same category, giving up 114.8 points over the course of 100 possessions, and only 0.3 points separate these two teams in net rating. They are almost carbon copies of one another, but in the details of their statistical profiles lie an exploitable weakness for either team to take advantage of.
The relevant weakness to begin with for the Hawks is their transition defense. Atlanta finished the regular season 29th in opponents points added per 100 possessions through transition offense (+ 3.8) and they allowed 134.7 points per 100 plays. Sometimes teams will have inflated transition numbers due to an offense that turns the ball over consistently which then translates to easy scoring opportunities, but not the case for the Hawks. Off live rebounds opponents averaged 123.4 points per 100 plays and added 1.6 points per 100 possessions, those figures ranking 27th and 24th respectively this season. That matters because Charlotte loves to run. The Hornets ranks third in transition frequency, starting 16.8% of their possessions with a transition play and they are lethal when out in the break. Charlotte led the league in points added per 100 possessions through transition offense (+ 4.2) and was third in overall efficiency (132.8). Off live rebounds they added 1.8 points per 100 possessions and posted a 127.7 offensive rating per 100 plays. This is a battle of the worst transition defense in the NBA against the best transition offense and I feel comfortable in saying that Charlotte will likely win part of the battle.
However, the Hornets need to get their own defensive affairs in order if they want to move on to the eight seed game. Charlotte has been cooked in halfcourt settings at times, allowing 96.5 points per 100 plays on the season. Where the Hornets really struggle is on the glass. Opponents snagged 28.5% of their missed attempts against Charlotte while averaging 21.6 points per 100 missed shot attempts in the halfcourt, and they tied the Los Angeles Clippers for most second chance points per game allowed (15.0). What works for the Hornets ere is that the Hawks have not been a dominant rebounding team by any stretch this season, but they can be with Clint Capela on the floor. In Capela’s minutes Atlanta has 27.7% offensive rebounding rate. His ability to make Charlotte pay for its lack of size will be key tonight.
Give me the underdog here. Charlotte’s advantage in transition is extremely lopsided, and they have other areas of the floor where they can take advantage of Atlanta’s defensive shortcomings. A number like 4.5 would say that the Hawks are the better team here by about 2.5 points with homecourt from the regular season factored in, and even with a stronger homecourt of 3.5 for a playoff setting this is still strong. I power rate these teams as nearly identical, and that is not what this number is saying.
Play: Hornets (+ 4.5)
Best Bet Summary
Hornets (+ 4.5)
Season Record: 83-63-2