It all comes down to this. This may not be the final day of the regular season, but it might as well be. The Western Conference play-in series will finally be decided on Thursday, and four teams are currently still in the running.
The Blazers grabbed the No. 8 seed in the conference with their win on Tuesday, so their fate is in their own hands today. If they win, they will have a huge leg up on whoever finishes with the No. 9 seed. The team that finishes eighth only needs to win one game in the play-in series to advance to the playoffs, while the team that finishes ninth needs to win twice. Considering how well Portland has been playing, beating them in two straight games is going to be a tough task.
The Grizzlies have had a disastrous start to the restart, and they have dropped out of the No. 8 spot for the first time in Orlando. That said, all they need to do is win today and they will advance to the play-in series. That’s probably not what they were hoping for when these seeding games started, but at least they can still salvage something.
The Suns have been the best team in Orlando, winning all seven of their seeding games heading into Thursday. They still need a little help to advance any further though. They’re going to need one of the Blazers or Grizzlies to lose in order to qualify for the play-in.
The Spurs are still alive as well, but they’re going to need a win and losses from two of the Blazers, Grizzlies, and Suns to jump into the top nine.
Overall, this should lead to a pretty exciting day of basketball. Let’s break it down from a betting perspective and see if we can identify some value.
Boston Celtics vs. Washington Wizards — TBD
The Celtics are sitting virtually their entire roster for today’s showdown with the Wizards. Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart, and Daniel Theis have all been given the night off.
With that in mind, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect from the Celtics in this contest. They’ve played just 111 minutes all year with all six players off the court, and it wouldn’t be a huge shock if all of those minutes came during garbage time.
That leaves the remaining roster with guys like Brad Wanamaker, Robert Williams, Enes Kanter, Romeo Langford, and Carsen Edwards. It will be interesting to see what those guys can do with some extended run.
On the Wizards side, they’re expected to be at basically full strength. Shabazz Napier was upgraded to probable for Thursday’s contest after missing each of the past two games.
Unfortunately, full strength for the Wizards still isn’t very good. They’ve been crushed in the bubble, posting an 0-7 record and ranking dead last in Net Rating. Their mark of -11.5 points per 100 possessions is more than twice as bad as the second-worst team in Orlando (the Lakers at -5.6 points per 100 possessions).
Still, it will be interesting to see what this line opens up at. Can the Celtics still be favored in this matchup with their top-six options all resting? It’s possible, but I’m not so sure. This line opened up at Boston -10, but I’d have to imagine it drops much closer to a pick-em. Ultimately, it’s hard to know exactly where I’ll land on this game until the number gets posted.
The Pick: TBD
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Sacramento Kings — TBD
This is another contest where both teams have nothing to play for, albeit for different reasons. The Lakers have already secured the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, while the Kings will be returning home after failing to qualify for the playoffs.
Let’s start with the Lakers. This game really comes down to how they choose to approach it. They have not played their best basketball in the bubble, but they should have no problems dispatching the Kings if they take it seriously.
It looks like there is at least a chance that their starters will suit up for this contest. LeBron James is currently listed as probable, while Anthony Davis is listed as questionable. It’s definitely still possible that both guys end up sitting, but the fact that they’ve been listed with injury designations instead of being ruled out early has me optimistic.
Perhaps the Lakers would like to use this game to generate some positive momentum heading into the playoffs, and I wouldn’t blame them if that were the case. They have not looked like themselves in the bubble, particularly from an offensive perspective. They’ve averaged the fewest points per 100 possessions of all the bubble teams after ranking fourth in that department before the restart.
On the other hand, the Kings are clearly just folding up shop. They’re giving De’Aaron Fox his second-straight game off, and he’ll be joined on the sidelines by Richaun Holmes and Kent Bazemore. It’s possible they rest some additional guys as well, but that is the only information we have at the time of writing.
The Kings offense should be expected to struggle without Fox. He’s been their driving force this season, and they’ve increased their offensive efficiency +5.3 points per 100 possessions and their effective field goal percentage by +2.9% with Fox on the court this season. They have taken a hit defensively — Fox is in the eighth percentile in terms of defensive efficiency differential — but the offense typically goes as Fox goes.
With that in mind, I’m definitely interested in the under when this line is ultimately posted. If the Lakers rest any starters, that’s good for the under. The Lakers’ strong defense is good for the under. The Kings being worse offensively and better defensively without Fox is good for the under. This obviously depends on where the line gets posted, but I have a hard time believing it’s going to be too low to play.
The Pick: Under TBD
Memphis Grizzlies vs. Milwaukee Bucks (-4) — Total TBD
We finally start to get to the games that matter. The Grizzlies have been one of the unluckiest teams in Orlando. For starters, they’ve been competitive in every single game in Orlando, yet they’ve managed to pull out just one win. Their Net Rating of -2.9 points per 100 possessions isn’t great, but it’s definitely better than that of a team with a 14.3% win rate.
They’ve also been unlucky in terms of their opponents. Not only have they had a tough schedule, they’ve also played against the opposing starters in virtually every game. The other teams contending for the final playoff spot in the West have each had multiple games where the opposition benches a handful of key starters, which is part of the reason why the Blazers, Suns, and Spurs have combined for a 17-4 record.
That said, the Grizzlies it looks like the Grizzlies have finally caught a break for today’s matchup vs. the Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo was suspended after headbutting Mo Wagner, so he will be forced to sit out. Giannis being out is obviously a huge win for the Grizzlies even if the rest of their starters are active.
Milwaukee has been a dominant force this season, but most of that dominance has come from Giannis. He has a Net Rating differential of +12.7 points per 100 possessions, which ranks in the 97th percentile for all players.
There’s also the chance that with Giannis out, Head Coach Mike Budenholzer might pull the plug on the rest of his starters. Even if he doesn’t, I would be shocked to see them play anywhere near their usual workload.
With that in mind, asking the Bucks to cover four points seems like too much. They can definitely still beat the Grizzlies if Middleton and Bledsoe are active, but what if those guys are limited to just 20-25 minutes? There’s just no upside to Milwaukee leaning on their contributors any heavier than that with Giannis out of the lineup.
The Pick: Grizzlies +4
Phoenix Suns (-5.5) vs. Dallas Mavericks — Total TBD
The Suns have been fantastic in Orlando. They rank first in Net Rating, outscoring their opponents by an average of +11.3 points per 100 possessions. The Celtics are the only other team that is even close to that mark (+10.2).
That number is obviously over a small seven-game sample size, but it is still very impressive. The Bucks were on pace for one of the most impressive regular seasons in league history prior to the shutdown, and their Net Rating was just +10.7 over that time frame.
The one big change that the Suns made to their rotation in Orlando was inserting Cameron Johnson into the starting lineup. He’s started all seven games for the Suns after starting just once prior to the restart, and he’s played the role of a “stretch four” to perfection. He’s provided excellent perimeter shooting — he’s making 39.2% of his 3-point attempts as a rookie — and he’s also been an active rebounder.
Overall, the five-man combination of Johnson, Devin Booker, Ricky Rubio, Deandre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges has posted a Net Rating of +12.8 over 128.1 minutes. That has to make them feel good about their future.
The Mavericks are another team with a bright future, but we probably won’t get to see that in today’s contest. Kristaps Porzingis and Seth Curry are both listed as questionable, and Luka Doncic could potentially be held out as well. The Mavericks are locked into the No. 7 seed in the West, so they have nothing to play for in this contest.
The Mavs also pushed their starters pretty hard on Tuesday vs. the Blazers but ultimately came up short in a 134-131 loss. After such a hard-fought game, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them rest some players before the postseason.
If that happens, 5.5-points is definitely not enough for the Suns to be favored by. They have taken care of shorthanded teams pretty easily during the restart, and they’ve won three of their past four games by at least 13 points.
This is definitely a game you’ll want to monitor, but I’m comfortable locking this pick in now. If for some reason Doncic and Porzingis do end up suiting up, you can always hedge out afterwards.
The Pick: Suns -5.5
Utah Jazz vs. San Antonio Spurs (-6.5) — Total TBD
I have absolutely loved how the Spurs have played in Orlando. There are a lot of teams with bright futures in the Western Conference, but San Antonio definitely deserves a place on that list.
The three-man guard combination of Derrick White, Dejounte Murray, and Lonnie Walker IV give the Spurs a young core to build around after LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan ultimately move on. They’ve posted a Net Rating of +4.9 points per 100 possessions with all three of those guys on the court during the restart, and they’ve gotten an excellent chance to play meaning minutes even if they fall short of the playoffs.
Of course, veterans like DeRozan and Rudy Gay also deserve some credit for their recent play. DeRozan has taken a bit of a backseat to the young guys early in games, but he’s been an absolutely lethal fourth quarter scorer. He’s averaged 8.9 points per game in the final stanza, which trails only Damian Lillard among players who have appeared in at least five contests.
Gay has also thrived in particular in these smaller lineups. His best numbers have actually come when occupying the center position. He definitely has the strength to guard bigger guys on the defensive end, and his offensive game is able to flourish in those matchups. He’s averaged 29.3 points per 48 minutes when playing as a center, and he’s surrendered just 11.6 points per 48 minutes on the other end of the court. That’s a big win.
They’re going to get a bit of scheduling help from the Jazz in this matchup, who have decided to rest most of their key contributors. They seem content with hanging on the No. 6 seed, which sets up a first round matchup vs. the Nuggets.
Mike Conley and Rudy Gay have already been ruled out, which means that the Jazz are going to have to lean on their reserves for more minutes than usual. That doesn’t bode well for the Jazz, who have been absolutely obliterated when their starters are off the court in Orlando.
The difference between Gobert and someone like Tony Bradley or Ed Davis is just about as big a downgrade as possible. The Jazz have increased their Net Rating by +13.1 points per 100 possessions with Gobert on the court and have decreased their Net Rating by at least -5.9 points with one of Bradley or Davis.
I have been on the Spurs all restart, so I’m certainly not stopping now.
The Pick: Spurs -6.5
Brooklyn Nets vs. Portland Trail Blazers (-9) — 236
We finally get to the marquee matchup on the slate. I never thought I’d be saying that about a game between the Blazers and the Nets, but here we are. Both of these teams have gone 5-2 during the restart, and both have played well above expectation.
Let’s start with the Blazers. They have done enough to control their own destiny heading into their final game of the season, but they still need one more win to get the job done. If they lose and two of the teams that are chasing them win, they will fall out of the play in series entirely.
Lillard has undoubtedly been the MVP of the restart, averaging 37.0 points and 9.3 assists while shooting 48.5% from the field and 41.4% from 3-point range. Those shooting percentages are ridiculously good considering the amount of shots he takes.
He’s also gotten some help from his supporting cast. Jusuf Nurkic was one of the Blazers’ most important players in 2019, and he’s been playing as well as ever since returning from his injury. Gary Trent Jr. and Carmelo Anthony have been knocking down open shots at a high rate. Zach Collins has posted a Net Rating differential of +9.5.
With that in mind, would you be surprised to learn that the Blazers rank just seventh in Net Rating in Orlando? That puts them behind the Suns, Spurs, and even the Miami Heat. As impressive as they have looked at times, it’s fair to say that they’ve gotten a bit lucky.
Meanwhile, no one gave the Nets any chance of winning five games in Orlando. Well, maybe if you included the playoffs, but certainly not during the regular season.
The best part is that they’ve done it without leaning on guys like Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, and Jarrett Allen. They’ve actually won two games where all three of those players were out of the lineup, so this team has plenty of fight.
I think they are going to relish the role of trying to play spoiler in this matchup. They have already stated that they are going to play their starters, and to quote Lillard, I think they’re looking for people to put some respect on their name. The Nets have only been embarrassed once in Orlando, and that came against the Celtics. They’ve been arguably the best team in the bubble — they rank first in schedule-adjusted Net Rating — so they are a clear step above the Blazers.
I’m not saying Brooklyn can win this contest, but I think this game will come down to the wire. Maybe it ends with more Lillard magic, or maybe their magical run falls one game short. Regardless, I’m taking the points here.
The Pick: Nets +9
Orlando Magic (-3.5) vs. New Orleans Pelicans — Total TBD
If you asked the players for both of these teams if they’d prefer to play this game or have the night off, I’m pretty sure they’re taking the night off. This game could get ugly.
The Pelicans will be without Zion Williamson, Jrue Holiday, and Brandon Ingram for the second-straight game, while the Magic will be without Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Michael Carter-Williams, and Terrence Ross. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of viable talent between these two teams.
Ultimately, I’m not going to waste my time looking at this game. The under could be an interesting wager, but it’s also possible the backups turn this game into a track meet and try to inflate their stats.
This game is going on at the same time as the Nets vs. the Blazers, so do yourself a favor and pretend that it doesn’t exist.
The Pick: Pass