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ROCKETS D RETURNS, AS DOES GEORGE

It has been a busy week in the NBA, and with so much going on almost every day, it can be hard to keep track. With that in mind, I’ve decided to start “The Corner Three” here in PSW — the biggest topics and trends of the previous week plus a potential matchup of the week for bettors. Enjoy, and happy handicapping.

Houston’s Defensive Surge

After a 3-3 start in which Houston failed to cover a single number, things have started to even out. The Rockets have won four straight and are 3-1 ATS over that stretch. How? Well, Houston actually started playing a bit of defense. During the first six games, the Rockets were allowing 116.2 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. All six opponents scored at least 112 points, four scored at least 123 and we all remember Washington dropping 158 in regulation. Since then, the Rockets are allowing just 99.8 points per 100 possessions, and their net rating is second best over this small sample size behind only Boston. However, some signs indicate this defensive surge is somewhat fraudulent. Two of Houston’s opponents during this winning streak, Memphis and Chicago, rank 26th and 28th, respectively, in offensive efficiency. Golden State and New Orleans are the best offenses the Rockets have faced in these four games, and even they rank just 13th and 15th in offensive efficiency. Both still scored at least 112 points, and Golden State actually averaged 1.109 points per possession in the loss. Houston’s schedule tightens up at the end of November, as it will face the Clippers twice, Nuggets and Mavericks over the next 12 days. If this version of Houston is real, bettors will find out soon enough.

Paul George Returns

Mark your calendars. The Los Angeles Clippers will finally be at full strength Thursday when they get Paul George back in the lineup. The game at New Orleans will be the second leg of a back-to-back, so it is unknown whether Kawhi Leonard will be alongside, but Los Angeles needs George’s defensive prowess. The Clippers have been as good as advertised without George, going 7-1 SU and

6-1-1 ATS with Leonard on the floor. However, Los Angeles has shown some slight shortcomings on defense. Through the first five games, the Clippers

were allowing 109.6 points per 100 possessions. Since then the defense has improved tremendously, allowing just 98.3 points per 100 possessions since the start of November. Can you imagine what this team will be like when George returns to his peak? Last year George was the top-ranked small forward in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, and with him on the floor the Thunder’s defensive rating improved by

5.7 points per 100 possessions. Obviously, it is not just offense that George brings to the table. He had career highs of 28 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and a league-leading 2.2 steals last season. Leonard needs a secondary scorer alongside. With him off the floor, the Clippers have a -9.2 efficiency differential, according to Cleaning the Glass. The team’s offensive rating, 108.9 on the season, drops to 106.5 without Leonard. George makes a huge difference on both ends, and with him Los Angeles becomes a bigger favorite to win the title.

Matchup of the Week

Milwaukee @ Indiana (Saturday, Nov. 16) A rash of injuries has beset the NBA early this season, and the latest took Milwaukee’s key role player, Khris Middleton. After taking a knee to the thigh, Middleton was diagnosed with a thigh contusion that will sideline him three to four weeks. As of Tuesday, the Bucks had failed to cover in three straight games, but they still rank in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency. What will the drop-off be without Middleton, who was averaging 1.194 points per shot attempt while shooting 39% from deep? Meanwhile, Indiana has persevered through injuries. Since losing Myles Turner to an ankle injury Oct. 30, the Pacers ripped off wins

in six of seven games heading into their contest Tuesday with Oklahoma City. Indiana has also had to deal with injuries to Domantas Sabonis and Jeremy Lamb over that span. Even so, Indiana posted the fourth-best net rating over those six games (8.4) while averaging 110.9 points per 100 possessions. Turner does not seem to be close to returning, so the Pacers will have their hands full guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the loss of Middleton makes this a relatively even playing field. Indiana is in a tough scheduling spot, meeting the Bucks on the second leg of a back-to-back after a road game in Houston. Milwaukee should be in the range of a four-point favorite by tip-off.

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