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Utah, Houston move closer to 2nd round

Jeff Fogle  
VSiN City newsletter

Houston and Utah took further command of their respective first-round NBA series with blowout victories Monday night. Numbers and notes, plus Tuesday previews and a full NHL breakdown right now in VSiN City.

NBA Monday: Houston scores 50 in the third quarter to mash Minnesota
That’s not something you see often. The Houston Rockets scored 50 points in the first half of Monday night’s playoff game against the Minnesota Timberwolves…and then 50 points in the third quarter on the way to a 119-100 victory. A relative no-show in the fourth quarter turned a 31-point scoreboard margin into something less embarrassing for the hosts. 

Houston (-6) 119, Minnesota 100
2-point Pct: Houston 49%, Minnesota 50%
3-pointers: Houston 16/43, Minnesota 8/22
Free Throws: Houston 23/26, Minnesota 8/22
Rebounds: Houston 46, Minnesota 48
Turnovers: Houston 6, Minnesota 16
Pace: 98.8 (for the series, 93.3, 97.2, 94.5, 98.8)

That third quarter was the first time all series where the Rockets looked like the best of themselves. Game 1 was closer than expected. Game 2 was a blowout, but James Harden had one of the worst games of his life. Game 3 saw the whole Rockets' team have one of its worst games of the past several months. What you see above is the “championship contender” version of the Rockets…particularly in three-point and turnover differential.

Not surprising that the three-point category went 16-8 for Houston. The regular season averages for these teams were 15 and 8. Typical volume yielded the expected result. Minor thing worth noting. This was the fastest game of the series…and Minnesota becomes turnover prone at speed. Let’s rank them from slowest to fastest.

93.3: Minnesota had 13 turnovers
94.5: Minnesota had 7 turnovers
97.2: Minnesota had 16 turnovers
98.8: Minnesota had 16 turnovers

An average of 10 per game at 94.5 or less, an average of 16 at 97 or higher. You’ll often hear announcers say that teams need to play faster to create more easy baskets. Playing faster also creates more turnovers, particularly in high pressure situations. 

Minnesota’s best chance in this matchup is to keep it slow, play clean, and hope Houston doesn’t shoot lights out. Though, the season is really over already, with the Timberwolves trailing 3-1 and heading back to Houston. The Rockets were -10.5 in the first two games at home, and would also be that big a favorite if a couple of miracles lead to a Game 7. 

Game 5 will be Wednesday night in Houston. Houston will face the winner of Utah/Oklahoma City in the next round. 

NBA Monday: Utah outclasses Oklahoma City for third straight win
Though Oklahoma City is just a service break away from getting back on track…all the evidence from the last three games suggests that Russell Westbrook and company aren’t up to the task. 

Utah (-5) 113, Oklahoma City 96
2-point Pct: Oklahoma City 48%, Utah 51%
3-pointers: Oklahoma City 5/26, Utah 12/34
Free Throws: Oklahoma City 25/30, Utah 19/27
Rebounds: Oklahoma City 46, Utah 49
Turnovers: Oklahoma City 14, Utah 11
Pace: 101.6 (for the series, 100.2, 98.3, 96.4, 101.6)

Utah prefers a slower halfcourt game that emphasizes defense and rebounding. This is the second FAST game (by playoff standards) that Utah has won in the series (G2 and G4). Oklahoma City doesn’t really have any workable options in this universe. What are the Thunder going to do, slow things down? Against the Jazz? 

Too many missed shots. Too many turnovers. And no way to hide the weaknesses of Carmelo Anthony if he isn’t scoring in volume. Here are his performances game by game. 

Game 1: 5 of 13 for 15 points
Game 2: 6 of 18 for 17 points
Game 3: 6 of 10, but only 14 points
Game 4: 5 of 18 for only 11 points

Anthony had one decent shooting game, but only accounted for 14 points that day in a loss. Anthony is a woeful 6 of 26 on treys. Many of the misses are virtual turnovers because Utah rebounds so well. It’s not fair to “blame” the 3-1 deficit on Anthony. It’s just that he’s the linchpin player whose failures can’t be overcome. He doesn’t guard with a passion. He only gets the rebounds that bounce to him. Believe it or not, he just completed his third straight game without any assists. That’s 2-0-0-0 in assists for the series. Oh, a grand total of ONE free throw over the last two games. 

Young, enthusiastic Utah carries a 3-1 series lead into Wednesday’s fifth game back in OKC. 

NBA Tuesday Previews: Philadelphia and Golden State can wrap things up at home, Boston/Milwaukee down to a best 2-of-3
Three games on the Tuesday night card, leading up to a rare weeknight grand slam on Wednesday. We’ll take our preview briefs in schedule order…starting with the swing game in Bucks/Celtics. 

Milwaukee at Boston (7:05 p.m. ET. on NBA TV, series tied 2-2)
Game 1: Boston (-3.5/199) 113, Milwaukee 107 (in OT)
Game 2: Boston (plus 1/199) 120, Milwaukee 106
Game 3: Milwaukee (-4.5/205.5) 116, Boston 92
Game 4: Milwaukee (-6/203) 104, Boston 102
Game 5: Boston -2.5, total of 204

Two compelling finishes…two blowouts…but four games that have convinced many viewers that neither of these teams will have much of a chance in the next round against Philadelphia. Boston’s defense inside the arc has allowed 52%, 65%, 63%, and 56% on two-pointers in game order. Milwaukee has yet to win the rebounding category a single time. 

Four Overs in the series totals-wise, though the opener needed that extra period to get there. Scoring sums in regulation were 198-226-208-206. The series has been much slower than you’d expect for an “all Over” sequence. The two games in Milwaukee were very slow at 88.7 and 89.3 possessions per team in the Pace Factor estimate. 

Boston is in a popular handicapping spot…returning home as the pre-series favorite after dropping two road games. That’s why the market opened with the Celtics about a trey better. Remember that Milwaukee closed a favorite the last time in Boston, and was laying near 5 or 6 at home. 

Miami at Philadelphia (8:05 p.m. ET. on TNT, Philadelphia leads series 3-1)
Game 1: Philadelphia (-6.5/215) 130, Miami 103
Game 2: Miami (-6.5/215.5) 113, Philadelphia 103
Game 3: Philadelphia (-2.5/213.5) 128, Miami 103
Game 4: Philadelphia (-4/212) 106, Miami 102
Game 5: Philadelphia -10, total of 211

That’s right, Philadelphia is up to -10 (!), at least as of press time. That’s a combination of Embiid being established back in the lineup, Philly just having a lousy three-point game, and “maybe Miami will throw in the towel.” It’s also a natural site switch line after a four-point road favorite won exactly by four. 

Through the first three games, Philly winning or losing was connected to three-point performance. In Game 4, the Sixers pushed the market price in a victory despite shooting poorly.

Game 1: 18 of 28 on treys for the Sixers
Game 2: 7 of 35 on treys for the Sixers
Game 3: 18 of 34 on treys for the Sixers
Game 4: 7 of 31 on treys for the Sixers

Not that treys zig zag forever. But, we just saw that Philly can push at 7 of 31, and we know that the Sixers are likely to perform better than that Tuesday night. Oh, did we mention the 26 turnovers? Philadelphia just pushed after going 7 of 31 on treys and turning the ball over 26 times!

Does Miami have any hope to compete? The Heat must do a better job of protecting the ball, with turnover counts of 16-16-15-19 in four up-tempo games (by playoff standards). Miami must compete harder on the boards (Philly’s rebound differential is plus 8, plus 3, plus 6, and plus 14). And, the Heat have to hope the hosts get complacent with a commanding series lead. 

San Antonio at Golden State (10:35 p.m. ET. on TNT, Golden State leads series 3-1)
Game 1: Golden State (-7.5/205.5) 113, San Antonio 92
Game 2: Golden State (-9.5/205.5) 116, San Antonio 101
Game 3: Golden State (-3.5/205.5) 110, San Antonio 97
Game 4: San Antonio (plus 5.5/206.5) 103, Golden State 90
Game 5: Golden State -11, total of 204.5

While San Antonio and Miami are in similar situations, it’s much harder seeing the Spurs pulling the outright shocker. San Antonio just had its peak outing, catching an established veteran team disinterested. There’s even a conspiracy theory going around that Golden State wanted to give Steph Curry extra time to get ready for the next round. New Orleans has already swept Portland and is awaiting the Warriors. If there was something nefarious going on, the Warriors probably won’t do that two games in a row. If there wasn’t, then the players are embarrassed and are going to take care of business. 

Note how the first three games were very similar…with GS scoring 110-116 points and winning them all by double digits. Seems like a par has been established for this course. 

We’ll recap all three of these games for you Wednesday in the newsletter. 

NHL Tuesday: Toronto takes Boston to seven…while Washington wins its fourth straight to sail past Columbus
Let’s recap Tuesday’s two results, then get caught up on the first round to date as handicappers prepare for the NHL’s elite eight.

Toronto (plus 110) 3, Boston 1 
Shots: Boston 33, Toronto 30
Power Plays: Boston 0/2, Toronto 0/3

Two straight wins for Toronto, and three of four after that dismal start in Boston. Emotions were running high after a day of tragedy in the home city. Boston will be a heavy favorite in Wednesday’s seventh game…the final game of the entire NHL first round. The Bruins were -200 back in Game 5 when they couldn’t finish the job. 

Why is Boston getting that much line respect? Shot counts have gone its way to the tune of about seven per game. That includes advantages of 40-27 and 45-21 at home in Games 1 and 5 respectively. 

Wednesday’s winner will face well-rested Tampa Bay in the second round. 

Washington (-plus 110) 6, Columbus 3 
Shots: Washington 28, Columbus 38
Power Plays: Washington 1/3, Columbus 0/4

Amazing resurgence for the Caps after dropping the first two games of the series at home. That looks to be directly tied to power play performances for Columbus.

Game 1: 2 of 4
Game 2: 2 of 4
Game 3: 0 of 4
Game 4: 0 of 3
Game 5: 0 of 5
Game 6: 0 of 4

Not that the Blue Jackets should have been expected to maintain a 50% success rate. But, a ZERO percent success rate was a killer, with 0 of 16 in the four losses. 

Even with four overtimes in six games, Washington was able to win goal count 24-18, and shot count 223-196. The superior team entering the series made things more interesting than it should have. Longtime postseason poison Pittsburgh is up next. 

Here’s a quick recap of the six other first round series that have ended.

Pittsburgh (-250) beat Philadelphia 4-2 
Pittsburgh won scoring 28-18, and shots per game 30.7 to 24.7. Feast or famine for the Penguins, who scored from low-to-high 1-2-5-5-7-8. You can guess where the losses game. Pittsburgh entered the night 6/1 to win the Stanley Cup at the Westgate, second favorite in the East behind Tampa Bay. If you think the Penguins have a great shot to go the distance, taking them at series prices and rolling over your money will likely bring back more than 6/1 unless Tampa Bay gets taken out of the mix.

Tampa Bay (-340) beat New Jersey 4-1
Just an 18-12 win in goal count. That’s still better than a goal per game in differential, but not explosive. Tampa Bay won the last two games 3-1. New Jersey ended the series with more shots on goal because the Devils were playing from behind so much. Tampa Bay is currently 4/1 to win the Stanley Cup, and will likely be a favorite over anyone but Nashville going forward. 

Nashville (-600) beat Colorado 4-2
Not quite the squash the market had expected considering that monster opening price. Nashville won goal count 22-15, on a per-game shot average of 35.3 to 28.7. Falling asleep in Game Five at home might have been a gentle reminder not to take anything for granted. Nashville is currently the favorite to win the Cup at 7/2 (or 3.5 to 1). 

Winnipeg (-240) beat Minnesota 4-1
Great defense keyed a 16-9 scoring advantage on an average shot count of 33.8 to 25.2. Always a good sign when favorites maintain control of flow of play even with leads. Winnipeg is 6/1 to win the Cup, even with the knowledge that the Jets have to go through Nashville first, before even facing the Vegas Golden Knights or the Eastern champion. Very clear case for going series by series and reloading if you want to back Winnipeg to go all the way. Upsetting Nashville would do the heavy lifting in advance of a nice payoff. 

Vegas Golden Knights (-135) swept Los Angeles 4-0
Boston beat Toronto 7-3 back in Game 2 of that series. That’s the goal count for the entire Vegas/LA series. Through four games, the Knights averaged fewer than two goals per game, the Kings fewer than one. Shot counts were very even at 32.8 to 32.5 per game for VGK. The city of Las Vegas is impatiently waiting for the second-round schedule to be announced. As is the city of San Jose! Vegas is 5/1 to win the Cup amidst very one-sided action in the sports betting capital of the world. 

San Jose (plus 105) swept Anaheim 4-0
Utter domination from out of nowhere for the series underdog…so far the only series underdog to advance out of the first round. San Jose won goal count 16-4 (scoring 80% of the goals, compared to just 70% for VKG in its sweep). Shot counts were close to even, with Anaheim launching a fraction more per game on average. San Jose is 12/1 to win the title.

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