Which Celtics will show up vs. Rockets?

March 2, 2019 06:55 PM

Sunday’s must-see NBA battle between the Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics (ABC, 3:35 p.m. ET) could shape the future of the most storied franchise in league history for years to come. 

Boston is either imploding before our eyes…or imploded three weeks ago and the shrapnel is falling in slow motion. 

Boston’s Worst

2/7: Celtics (-9) lost to the LA Lakers 129-128

2/9: Celtics (-11) lost to the LA Clippers 123-112

2/23: Celtics (-10) lost at Chicago 126-116

2/26: Celtics ( 3.5) lost at Toronto 118-95

Yes, we cherry-picked lowlights. We left out recent win-covers over Philadelphia and Detroit. What’s interesting is that those were the games Kyrie Irving missed! Boston is consistently failing to meet recent expectations when Irving is on the floor…but resemble “the Celtics of old” when he’s sidelined with injury or illness. Hustle, grit, brains, the elements that marked Brad Stevens-coached teams (and prior decades) are still there when Irving sits. 

Oddsmakers have been chasing this reality for awhile now. Irving isn’t always an anvil. But, the chemistry issues organic to his presence have mattered this season. Wednesday’s home loss to Portland is a nice measuring point because it left Boston 31-31 against the spread in the 2018-19 campaign. Broken down further, Boston has covered just 47% of games with Irving in uniform (24-27 ATS), but 64% of the games he missed (7-4 ATS). 

And remember that market “Regular Season Win Total” estimates had Boston finishing at 59-23 straight up. The Celtics were the first NBA team to lock in a loss this past Tuesday in Toronto with loss #24. Boston is on pace to finish at least 10 victories below its target. 

VSiN has talked in the past about how poor showings against market expectations often foreshadow coaching changes. It would have been impossible to imagine Brad Stevens being in trouble before the season started. Now, Boston is confronted with the reality that Stevens might be best suited to “overachieve” during the regular season grind with hungry youngsters rather than winning championships while battling superstar egos. 

Given all this, is Houston an auto-bet Sunday? The Rockets do come in well-rested after hosting Miami Thursday. But James Harden and company have been dealing with their own issues. Houston’s covered less than a third of the time overall since mid-January, going just 3-6-1 ATS in its road games.

Last summer, Boston was favored to win the East, and a respectable 9/2 at William Hill to win the league championship. Houston was third-favorite in the West, and fourth favorite overall at 11/2 to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy. Now, both teams may be fighting just to matter in June. Or May!

Even if you don’t bet Houston/Boston, do your best to evaluate the “real current form” of both teams as you ponder future regular season and playoff strategies. Knowing who to bet AGAINST and when will put you ahead of the game in pro basketball handicapping.

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