The seeding games in the bubble are officially winding down. Sunday brings us another seven contests, starting with the Thunder vs. the Wizards at 12:30 p.m. ET and concluding with the Clippers vs. the Nets at 9 p.m. ET.
This slate is going to be absolutely critical for the Western Conference playoff picture. The race for the No. 8 seed just continues to get crazier. The Blazers were poised to win on Saturday vs. the Clippers — which would have secured them a spot in the play-in series — but they were ultimately outscored 12-5 over the final 96 seconds. That loss keeps everyone in the running.
The Grizzlies now lead the Blazers by 1.5 games for the No. 8 seed, while the Blazers lead the Suns and Spurs by just 0.5 games for the No. 9 seed. The Pelicans are also still alive, trailing the Spurs by just 0.5 games. The Kings are not mathematically eliminated yet, but they’re going to need a lot of help.
Ultimately, five of those six teams are in action on Sunday — Phoenix is the only team not playing — so we should have a little more clarity at the end of the day.
Let’s break down this massive slate and identify some potential betting value.
Oklahoma City Thunder (-9) vs. Washington Wizards — 224.0 total
The Thunder have been up-and-down during the seeding games in the bubble. They’ve gone 2-2 over their first four games, and that includes an impressive 19-point win vs. the Lakers. That said, they were absolutely demolished by the Grizzlies in their last game, losing by a whopping 29 points.
They were without both Dennis Schroder and Steven Adams in that contest, and they’ll be without both of those players once again. Those are two very important parts of the Thunder’s rotation. Schroder ranks third on the team with a Net Rating differential of +7.7, while Adams ranks fourth with a mark of +3.9.
This game also means very little to the Thunder. Their seeding is still up in the air, but there doesn’t appear to be a huge difference between the No. 4 seed and the No. 6 seed this season. There is obviously no home court advantage in the bubble, and it’s hard to jockey for position to try and set up matchups at this point.
Their two best players — Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari — are also aging veterans who have struggled with injuries in the past. It wouldn’t shock me if they didn’t take this game very seriously.
The big question is whether or not the Thunder can still cover this game if they bring their C game.
So far, the Wizards have lived up to expectations in the bubble. They’ve lost each of their first five games, and they’ve lost them all by at least eight points. They just don’t have the same level of talent on their roster as the rest of the squads in Orlando.
Still, I do like that the Wizards are at least starting to lean a little heavier on their best players. Troy Brown Jr, Rui Hachimura, and Thomas Bryant all played at least 34.9 minutes in their last game, and Ish Smith wasn’t far behind at 31.8. That still isn’t a great core, but at least those guys are all legit NBA players.
I’m going to roll the dice and grab the points with the Wizards. I just can’t imagine the Thunder giving CP3 and Gallo full workloads in this matchup, so 9.5 feels a touch high. The Wizards will also likely be a contrarian target, and fading the public is typically the way to go in sports betting.
The Pick: Wizards +9
Toronto Raptors (-7) vs. Memphis Grizzlies — 222.0 total
This is an absolutely huge game for the Grizzlies. They have a chance to extend their lead over the Blazers for the No. 8 seed, and a win also ensures that they can fall no lower than ninth in the conference.
The Grizzlies have recorded just one win in the bubble, but it was a resounding 29-point victory over the Thunder in their last game. They did shake up their starting lineup in that contest, inserting journeyman PF Anthony Tolliver in place of Brandon Clarke. The change appeared to work, with the Grizzlies outsourcing the Thunder by +21 points with Tolliver on the court.
Tolliver is not a particularly imposing threat on the basketball court, but the one thing he can do is shoot the ball from deep. He’s a career 37.4% 3-point shooter, which gives the Grizzlies some additional spacing. They are not the best shooting team — they rank just 20th in team true shooting percentage this season — so the addition of Tolliver should make life easier for guys like Jonas Valanciunas and Ja Morant.
Tolliver has only played 161 minutes for the Grizzlies this season, but they’ve increased their Net Rating by +10.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. That’s too small of a sample size to draw any definitive conclusions, but the early results are promising.
On the other side of this matchup, the Raptors were absolutely run out of the gym in their last outing. The Raptors trailed the Celtics by 15 points and halftime and ultimately lost the game by 22 points.
Serge Ibaka was forced to leave that contest with an eye injury, but he is currently probable for today’s contest. That means the Raptors will be essentially at full strength.
Toronto had been undefeated prior to that loss vs. the Celtics, so this could be a decent time to buy low on them. They are 10-8 against the spread following a loss this season, including 6-5 as a favorite. That isn’t a huge sample size, but that’s what happens when you don’t lose a lot of games.
I’m ultimately going to pass on this spot, but it would not shock me if the Raptors won this game by a comfortable margin.
The Pick: Pass
New Orleans Pelicans (-3) vs. San Antonio Spurs — 239.0 total
Both of these teams desperately need a win to keep their fading playoff hopes alive.
The Spurs enter this game in a slightly better position. They could potentially pull even with the Blazers with a win, but Portland would still be ahead based on winning percentage. The Spurs have played two less games than the Blazers and Suns, which gives those teams a slight edge vs. San Antonio. If the Spurs finish with one less win and one less loss than either one of those teams, they are going to lose on winning percentage.
With that in mind, the Spurs might need to win all three of their remaining games if they want a chance to qualify for the postseason.
The Spurs have been a completely different team without LaMarcus Aldridge in the bubble. They’ve played at the fourth-fastest pace — averaging 104.3 possessions per game — and they rank third in offensive efficiency.
Their problems have come on the defensive end of the court, where they’re allowing opponents to average 115.4 points per 100 possessions. The Spurs have been burned by the 3-ball all season, allowing opponents to shoot 41.2% from the corner and 38.1% overall. Opponents have shot 37.5% from 3 specifically during the restart, which ranks just 16th out of 22 teams. This potentially might be a great spot for a Spur’s 3 point prop, if you need to brush up on prob betting in the NBA, this article is a great place to start.
The good news for them in this matchup is that the Pelicans are merely a mediocre 3-point shooting team. They are pretty proficient from the corner — they’ve shot a blistering 52.8% during the restart — but they’re still just the 11th-best 3-point shooting team overall.
They do the majority of their damage at the rim, which is not surprising given the presence of Zion Williamson. San Antonio has protected the rim much better in Orlando with Jakob Poeltl at center, so this matchup plays into their strengths.
The biggest X-factor is just how much Williamson will actually play. He’s been limited to 25 minutes or less in Orlando, but he did rest in the Pelicans’ last game. If he’s cleared to get up to 30 minutes, I like the Pelicans’ chances. Zion is so impactful when on the court — the Pelicans have increased their Net Rating by +8.2 points per 100 possessions in that situation — so his status will have a huge impact on this game.
I’m fine with playing the Spurs as underdogs, but I’m going to wait to lock in my wager. If there’s a pregame report that Zion will play more minutes, I’m ultimately going to stay away.
The Pick: Spurs +3 (but will monitor the news before locking)
Boston Celtics (-6.5) vs. Orlando Magic — total TBD
Quick question — which team ranks first in the bubble in Net Rating?
The correct answer is the Celtics, who have outscored their opponents by +10.3 points per 100 possessions over their first four games. That number is inflated by back-to-back blowout wins, but this team has been competitive in every single contest they’ve played in Orlando.
I still think the Celtics are a legit sleeper, and the fact that Kemba Walker is getting healthier only helps that argument. He’s been the Celtics’ most important offensive weapon this season, so getting him near full strength before the playoffs is crucial for them. Walker was reportedly available to play 30 minutes in their last game, but they ultimately needed him for just 22.9.
The fact that the Celtics are trying to work Walker back into the rotation should actually benefit us from a betting perspective. Head Coach Brad Stevens said that he’d like to play their starters for their “normal workload” in two of their final three games, so I think they should be a full go for this contest. Only Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward played more than 28 minutes in their last game, so it would be weird to rest them now.
As long as that’s the case, they should have no problem taking care of the Orlando Magic. The Magic are not a particularly good basketball team to begin with, and they’re also dealing with some injuries at the moment. Jonathan Isaac will miss the rest of the season after tearing his ACL, while Aaron Gordon and Michael Carter-Williams are questionable. The Magic have nothing to play for but seeding at this point, so expect them to exercise some caution with their injured players.
I’m definitely in on the Celtics at this number.
The Pick: Celtics -6.5
Portland Trail Blazers (-2.5) vs. Philadelphia 76ers — 229.5 total
This is an absolutely huge contest for the Blazers. They need a win to maintain their cushion over the Suns and Spurs, and a loss would also decrease their chances of ultimately catching the Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed.
That said, this is not going to be an easy task.
The Blazers will be playing on the second leg of a back-to-back, and their starters were asked to carry a large workload on Saturday. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum both played 39 minutes, Carmelo Anthony played 34, and Jusuf Nurkic played 33. Those weren’t your typical “random Saturday in December” minutes either; they were playoff-type minutes for a team fighting for their lives.
They are going to have their hands full vs. a 76ers team that is coming off a rest day. They weren’t all systems go in their last game vs. the Magic, but they were still able to secure a seven-point victory.
The big question is whether or not the 76ers will show up motivated for this contest. We’ve seen the Nuggets and Clippers make some “questionable” decisions vs. the Blazers over their past two games, but those teams would directly benefit from the Blazers making the playoffs. They would have to play the Lakers in the first round, which would be a real test for them.
The 76ers get no such benefit.
They also need to take this time to try and define their identity without Ben Simmons. He left the bubble on Saturday, and recent reports suggest that he’s done for the season.
With that in mind, I’m expecting the 76ers to give it their all in this contest. Joel Embiid can be absolutely dominant when he wants to be, and we saw that in the third quarter vs. the Magic on Friday. He finished with 12 points and got to the line eight times in 10.5 minutes, and it would be scary to see what the 76ers could do if he played like that for a full game.
I think the public is too high on Portland and too low on Philly following the Simmons injury, and that is reflected in the betting numbers for this contest. The vast majority of the early betting tickets have come in on the Blazers as favorites, so I will gladly take the points with the 76ers.
The Pick: 76ers +2.5
Sacramento Kings vs. Houston Rockets (-4.5) — 231 total
This game features two teams that are dealing with some injuries at the moment.
Let’s start with the Rockets. Eric Gordon will miss his fifth-straight game in Orlando, while Russell Westbrook will miss his second. Those are two of the top three options on the team in terms of usage rate, so it definitely leaves a bit of a void.
Luckily, they have this guy with a sweet beard who’s pretty good at basketball. James Harden is quite simply the best high-volume scorer in the league. No one who averages at least 65 touches per game averages more points per touch than Harden.
Unsurprisingly, Harden has carried a massive workload in games without Westbrook and Gordon this season. He’s increased his usage rate to 45.7% in those situations, and more Harden is typically good for the Rockets’ offense.
Some people think the way he plays is “boring” or “easy”, but the Rockets are 18-2 when he scores at least 40 points this season. In other words, Harden scoring has a direct correlation to the Rockets winning. You may not like how he does it, but the guy is one of the most efficient scorers in the history of the league.
The Kings’ injuries don’t carry nearly the same name value as the Rockets’, but they could be just as important. Richaun Holmes has already been ruled out, while Kent Bazemore is listed as questionable. Holmes in particular has started each game at center for the Kings inside the bubble.
The Rockets’ biggest weakness in the bubble has been on the glass, where they’ve been absolutely bludgeoned. Without Holmes, they’ll be without one of their better rebounders.
They could start Alex Len, but it seems unlikely that he can hang on the court vs. the Rockets. He’s not exactly agile, so I can’t see him running out to contest 3-pointers all night long.
Basically, this is a terrible matchup for the Kings. They could try to go small and outscore the Rockets, but I’m taking Harden in that fight every single time.
The Pick: Rockets -4.5
Los Angeles Clippers (-13) vs. Brooklyn Nets — Total TBD
First of all, big respect to the Nets. No one gave them much of a chance in Orlando, but so far they’ve actually managed to hold off the Magic for the No. 7 seed in the East. They also hit the over on their win total after just five games. They may not have a ton of talent, but they have played hard.
Unfortunately, things are not looking good for them vs. the Clippers. Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, and Jarrett Allen are all listed as doubtful, and those are their three best players who actually made it to the bubble by a wide margin.
On the other side, the Clippers will have a fully rested Kawhi Leonard after giving him the day off Saturday. They may rest Paul George today — nothing has been reported but I’d be shocked if they didn’t consider it — but a fully rested Kawhi should be enough to dispatch the Nets’ backups.
I’m not looking to back the Clippers as massive favorites because too many wacky things can happen, but I’m definitely not betting on the Nets either.
The Pick: Pass