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NBA

NBA Postseason Picks: Play-in Games

The Play-in Games are Silly, but at Least We Can Profit off Them

Odds via DraftKings Sportsbook

 

There have been a lot of people complaining this season about the NBA’s play-in games. This season, it makes sense a lot of people are mad about it, but this season’s odd standings are the ONLY reason. Normally, the play-in exists to give teams a chance to keep trying when most teams around that 9-12 range would be tanking. At its core, the play-in exists to give winning teams a playoff shot in years where one conference is stacked.

No matter what you think of the existence of the play-in games, it’s pretty cool we have a single game, knockout format just prior to the start of the playoffs. To be honest, it makes sense for the East this year, as ten teams have at least a .524 winning percentage.

The season has been entertaining from the start, but now things are getting serious. For the first time in a very long time, there’s no clear, obvious favorite. The Suns have been tremendous this season, but we’ve said this about them more than twice in the last 20 years and it turned out to be just a big letdown both times. Whatever happens, it should be a competitive, entertaining playoffs overall.

 

Los Angeles Clippers at Minnesota Timberwolves -3

The Minnesota Timberwolves are one of those teams who came into this season as a fringe playoff contender. They have a formidable trio of scorers in Karl Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Anthony Edwards. They won 46 games and finished the season in the range Vegas expected them to finish. Now, the Timberwolves have to take the next step as a team. On fun fact: The Timberwolves are #1 in the NBA in forcing turnovers (15.5 per game).

For the Los Angeles Clippers, it’s been all about defense this season. The Clippers are 11th in the NBA this season in opponent PPG (108.4). They’re managed to make the play-in despite the absence of Kawhi Leonard this season. They’ve also only recently gotten Paul George back after a three-month absence with a UCL tear in his elbow. If Kawhi manages to make a return for the playoffs, this team could be a dangerous dark horse in the West. However, that isn’t going to happen by Tuesday.

This matchup is interesting. The Clippers won the first three meetings in their four regular season games, but Minnesota is not the same team they were in the first three meetings. Prior to their fourth meeting, Minnesota was 16-20. Since that last game between them, Minnesota has gone 30-16.

The rub here is the Timberwolves at home. At home this season, they’re 26-15. The Clippers have been playing well since Paul George returned, but the road atmosphere and the Wolves’ trio is suited well to overcome the Clippers’ solid defense. Hats-off to what Ty Lue did this season without his two best players, but they seem destined for the eight seed.

 

San Antonio Spurs +5 at New Orleans Pelicans

For the duration of the season, the storyline surrounding the Pelicans was, “when will Zion return?” Once the hints of dissent and the reality of Zion sitting the entire season became a reality in February, the focus has been on the Pelicans’ surprising performance this season. Herbert Jones has been a defensive stud, while a plethora of other young guys have contributed sparingly to their offense.

The San Antonio Spurs are still in their infancy on their rebuild. For the third season in a row, the Spurs have improved their record. With such a young core and a lack of star power, the Spurs have exceeded expectations. Even though their record wasn’t good, it was good enough to surpass the Lakers down the stretch. Going 7-4 down the stretch, the Spurs edged the Lakers for the final spot in the play-in.

It’s very likely neither of these teams advance to the playoffs, but it’s nice to have these fringe playoff teams giving their all down the stretch, as opposed to the usual tanking in February. This matchup, to me, comes down to coaching. Both teams feature youth and versatility, albeit more holes in each player’s individual skill sets. The difference here is Gregg Popovich. I’m not sure the Spurs will win, but it’s hard to justify taking the Pelicans over a Popovich-coached team.

 

Cleveland Cavs at Brooklyn Nets -8.5

The Cleveland Cavs were a great story until they lost Jarrett Allen to an injury. Since then, they’ve slipped into the play-in and don’t stand a great chance at making the playoffs now at all. Without their front court duo wreaking havoc and operating with surprising pace, their defensive vulnerability has been exploited.

The Brooklyn Nets have been the “just wait til this team has their three best guys” team for two years now. Following the James Harden trade, there was initial optimism the Nets could make a good run and Ben Simmons could be a solid contributor and a plus contributor to their awful defense. As of now, it’s more likely Simmons misses the first week of the playoffs with back issues. Either way, this team is legitimately amazing on offense and stands a good chance to win it all, when fully healthy.

Defense is all about effort. In the case of teams getting into playoff situations, they tend to improve defensively once the playoffs begin. That’s the expectation for the Nets, who have been noticeably focused just the offense, will step-up the intensity for this game.

We expect a scenario most likely to occur would be: Nets get out to a decent lead in the third quarter, so the Cavs back off and rest starters much of the fourth quarter (expecting Jarrett Allen to be ready to go for Friday’s game vs the Hornets or Hawks. With Joe Harris done for the season and Seth Curry nursing a sore ankle, their offensive ceiling isn’t what it was last year, but still enough to overcome the Cavs fairly easily.

 

Charlotte Hornets at Atlanta Hawks -4.5

The Charlotte Hornets are worse on paper than they are in real life. Their pace on offense is great, so their deficiencies on defense look worse when you’re ONLY considering it by itself. Truthfully, the Hornets are a very average team whose weakness is primarily in rebounding. The Hornets are 23rd in rebounding differential. The identity of this team is the trio of Bridges, Ball, and Hayward. With Hayward out, their odds to qualify for the 8 seed appear unlikely.

The Atlanta Hawks have been a huge letdown, since going deep in the Eastern Conference playoffs a year ago. The problems start with the defense (bottom 10 in the NBA) but more specifically, they don’t force turnovers (27th in the NBA). They are also 29th in the NBA in foul differential (-1.6 per game). The Hawks have their issues, but it’s going to come down to whether or not Trae Young can have a good game Wednesday. If they can survive, they should be setup for Cleveland on Friday.

It’s hard to look back at last year’s playoffs and believe the Hawks are in the situation they’re in now. Regardless of what’s happened between then and now, they can erase that narrative by just winning their next two (very winnable) games. We like the Hawks in this game, simply because of Trae Young. Miles Bridges has been tremendous this season, but the Hawks are just a better version of the Hornets.

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