The NBA regular season is winding down, with just five days left on the calendar. We have another five games on Monday, starting with the Thunder vs. the Suns at 2:30 p.m. ET and wrapping up with the Lakers vs. the Nuggets at 9 p.m. ET.
Sunday’s slate brought us our first casualties in the Western Conference. The Kings and Pelicans were both eliminated from playoff contention, which leaves just four teams fighting for two spots. Those four teams are separated by just 1.5 total games, so we should have a very exciting finish to the seeding games.
Only one of those teams is in action today — the Phoenix Suns — so it will be difficult to handicap the motivation for the other nine teams in the slate. We also have a bunch of injuries to monitor, which further complicates the situation.
That said, let’s break down each contest to try and identify some betting value.
Phoenix Suns (-4) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder – 224.0 total
The first game of the day is the most important. The Suns currently occupy the No. 11 spot in the Western Conference, but they have a game in hand vs. the three teams directly above them. If they can manage a win today, they will jump the Spurs and be just 0.5 games behind the Blazers in the standings. They don’t exactly control their own fate — they would need some losses from the Grizzlies or Blazers to catch them — but they have made one hell of a statement in Orlando.
Phoenix is the last remaining undefeated team in the bubble, and they also rank second in Net Rating. They’ve outscored opponents by an average of +8.0 points per 100 possessions, and they haven’t exactly played a cupcake schedule. They did start the seeding games with a win over the Wizards, but they’ve followed that up with wins vs. the Mavericks, Clippers, Pacers, and Heat. Those are all teams that are solidly in the playoffs.
They’ve relied on a starting unit that has really gelled in Orlando. The five-man combination of Devin Booker, Ricky Rubio, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and Cam Johnson has posted a Net Rating of +14.1 over 109.6 minutes this season. The Suns know they need to win this contest to keep their playoff hopes alive, so expect them to lean heavily on that unit once again.
On the other side of this matchup, I have no idea what the Thunder plan to do. They’re playing on the second leg of a back-to-back, and they had some lineup indecision before yesterday’s contest. Steven Adams was ruled out, then he was ruled in, and then he was ruled out again. Who knows how they’re going to proceed with Adams today.
They could also look to rest Chris Paul and/or Danilo Gallinari. Dennis Schroder also remains out of the lineup, so the Thunder would not have a ton of offensive firepower available if either of their two fragile veterans gets the night off.
Ultimately, how the Thunder decide to attack this contest is going to impact my pick. If they rest any of their usual starters — especially Chris Paul — I will be on the Suns. If they don’t, this game will be a pass.
The Pick: TBD
Utah Jazz (-7) vs. Dallas Mavericks – total TBD
This game has the potential to be a real snoozer. Both teams have very little to play for at this point, and they’re approaching this game that way.
Let’s start with the Mavericks. They have already ruled out Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, and Dorian Finney-Smith for this game. DFS being out of the lineup is insignificant, but I have no idea how they’re going to generate any offense with Doncic and Porzingis on the sidelines. The Mavs have actually posted a Net Rating of zero with both players off the court this season, but I don’t buy that number for a second. It’s one thing when you’re missing your two superstars vs. bench units or in garbage time, but it’s a whole different beast when you’re missing them for an entire game.
One thing to note is that they have played significantly slower with both players off the court. Their pace drops to just 99.0 possessions per 48 minutes, but they’ve been at 102.12 so far in the bubble.
The Jazz also have the potential to be without their best player. No Jordan Clarkson, I’m not talking about you. I’m actually referring to Donovan Mitchell, who is currently listed as questionable with a leg injury.
The Jazz are already without Bojan Bogdanovic, so losing Mitchell would leave the team without their two highest-usage players from before the shutdown. Utah’s offensive efficiency with both players off the court drops to just 106.3 points per 100 possessions.
The Jazz have already struggled to score the ball in Orlando — they rank 19th out of 22 teams in terms of offensive efficiency — so losing Mitchell would be a huge blow.
We’re still waiting on the total in this game, but I would be surprised if I didn’t eventually wind up on the under. We haven’t seen many totals lower than 215 in the bubble, but I would play the under on anything greater than 212 if Mitchell is ruled out.
The Pick: Under
Milwaukee Bucks (-5.5) vs. Toronto Raptors — TBD
These teams have locked up the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the Eastern Conference, so this is a potential preview of the Eastern Conference finals.
These two teams already know each other pretty well from last season, but the Raptors obviously don’t have Kawhi Leonard this time. The Bucks have taken care of business in their two matchups vs. the Raptors this season, winning both games by an average margin of +10.5 points.
It does appear at the moment that both teams will have their full rosters available for Round 3. Giannis Antetokounmpo is on the injury report with a toothache — I kid you not — but he’s listed as probable. Serge Ibaka was probable heading into Sunday’s contest and ultimately logged 25 minutes in the win. He seems like he should be fine moving forward.
The fact that the Raptors are on the second leg of a back-to-back makes this an interesting situation. Even though they have indicated that anyone will rest yet, they may wind up reversing course.
With that in mind, I’m going to lock in a small speculative play on the Bucks. They haven’t been at their best in the bubble, so I think they will take this game a bit more seriously.
The Pick: Bucks -5.5
Miami Heat (-2.5) vs. Indiana Pacers — TBD
The Heat have struggled in Orlando, posting a record of just 2-3, but they have been dealing with a bunch of injuries recently. Jimmy Butler has missed each of their past three games, and Goran Dragic has missed the past two. Kendrick Nunn is still out of the lineup after leaving the bubble for personal reasons, but the Heat are expected to get Butler and Dragic back today.
Butler has been Miami’s most important player this season. He leads the team in a variety of categories — minutes per game, steals, points, assists, usage rate, etc — so getting him back in the lineup should make a huge difference.
Overall, the Heat have increased their Net Rating by +4.7 points per 100 possessions with Butler on the court this season. That’s the second-highest mark on the squad.
Dragic should also be a welcome sight. He’s posted a Net Rating differential of +1.8 this season, and it’s possible he could move into the starting lineup for this contest. Even if he doesn’t, he should serve as the primary facilitator for the bench units and will likely close the game with the starters.
Meanwhile, the Pacers have definitely exceeded expectations so far inside the bubble. They’ve posted a 4-1 record through their first five games despite not having Domantas Sabonis. Malcolm Brogdon has also been in-and-out of the lineup, and those have been the Pacers’ two best players this season.
T.J. Warren has been most of the reason for their success. He has thrived with the extra scoring responsibilities, averaging a whopping 34.8 points per game. He’s also scored at least 32 points in four of those contests, and those happen to be the four games that the Pacers have won.
Unfortunately, Warren is listed as questionable for today’s matchup with a foot injury. If they don’t have his scoring in the lineup, they’re going to struggle to keep pace with the Heat. Miami has been one of the best offensive teams in basketball this season, ranking tied for seventh in offensive efficiency.
Warren was also listed as questionable in their last game, but he was ultimately able to suit up. He may try to play through it again vs. the Heat, but I’m not sure why the coaching staff would risk it. They are 1.0 games up on the 76ers for the No. 5 spot in the East, so they have a bit of a cushion.
I hate to sound like a broken record, but this is another spot where I will be monitoring the injury report. I’m going to want to know Warren’s status before locking in a wager, but if he’s out, I will be firing on the Heat as small favorites.
The Pick: TBD (Dependent on Warren’s status)
Los Angeles Lakers (-4.5) vs. Denver Nuggets — 221.0 total
We get to the final game of the night, and I think this is actually a pretty important game for the Lakers. They have been playing terrible basketball in the bubble, and that is not the way that you want to enter the playoffs. They’ve stumbled to a 2-4 record and rank 21st in Net Rating. That’s only better than the Wizards.
The Lakers only have two regular season games left before the playoffs, so they’re running out of time to get back on track. You wouldn’t worry about the No. 1 seed in the first round of the playoffs usually, but a matchup vs. the Blazers would present a lot of problems.
The good news is that the team will be at basically full strength for this contest. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been ruled out, but LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Danny Green are all probable. The Lakers have some added depth at SG after bringing in Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith, so they should be able to overcome his absence pretty easily.
This game doesn’t mean nearly as much to the Nuggets. They could still catch the Clippers for the No. 2 seed in the West, but I’m honestly not sure how important that is. There isn’t a huge difference between facing a team like the Jazz or a team like the Mavericks in the first round. In fact, if the Jazz do finish with the No. 6 seed, you could argue that the No. 3 spot is actually more desirable.
The bigger priority for the Nuggets is to continue to get healthier. Jamal Murray suited up for the first time in Orlando on Saturday, and they probably pushed him a little harder than they wanted to in his first game back. Gary Harris and Will Barton both remain out with injuries.
The Nuggets have been one of the luckier teams in basketball this season when at full strength, so I have no problem with fading them when they’re shorthanded.
The Lakers entered the bubble as the title favorites, and I think it’s time they started acting like it. One good performance vs. the Nuggets would erase all the negative feelings they generated during their slow start.
The Pick: Lakers -4.5