NBA Playoff Preview For 8/31/2020

Milwaukee and Miami begin their playoff series; Rockets look to close out the Thunder

Milwaukee Bucks (-5.5) vs. Miami Heat (+5.5) Game One at 6:30 PM EST

The Heat and Bucks will meet for the first game of their Eastern Conference Semi-Final matchup. Despite losing the first game of their series against the Magic, the Bucks were able to put together a four-game win-streak to bounce Orlando out of the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Heat come into this series with a chip on their shoulder after sweeping the Indiana Pacers in four games. I think that this series will be one of the best of the 2020 playoffs.

These squads have faced off three times so far this season. Two of the matchups came before the NBA season was paused in mid-March. The Heat were able to sweep the regular-season series. Miami and Milwaukee did meet once more in the NBA Bubble. The Bucks wound up winning that game 130-116, clinching the top seed in the East. Now, these two franchises will meet in a best-of-seven series with a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals on the line.

The biggest storyline coming into this series is the head-to-head battles that will likely take place between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler. It is worth noting that the Miami Heat were able to win the season series against the Bucks even though Jimmy Butler only played in one game against Milwaukee. In that game, which the Heat won 105-89, Giannis was held to just 13 points on a night where he shot 33% from the field. Also, the Greek Freak finished the game with a +/- of -16, which is unacceptable for a former MVP. On the other side, Jimmy Butler played one of his best games of the season when he faced off against Giannis on March 2nd. Butler finished with 18 points, seven assists, six rebounds, and a +/- of +14. You can guarantee that Jimmy Butler is going to make life difficult for Giannis.

When I look at this series, I like the Bucks to win, but I still believe Miami is going to push this to six or seven games. Jimmy Butler can contain Giannis, that fact has already been proven. Furthermore, I think Bam Adebayo will give the Bucks fits down-low. Plus, Goran Dragic has been excellent in the postseason, averaging 22.8 points, five assists, and four rebounds per game. I think Miami is going to come out with a head full of steam and get off to a hot start, especially because they are well-rested. They’ll ride that momentum to an eventual victory. I’m worried Milwaukee can get a little complacent at times. We saw that in the last series when they lost their opening game against the Magic. Like I said, I think the Bucks win the series, but I like the Heat to take game one.

Heat 113 – Bucks 108

Houston Rockets (-5.0) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (+5.0) Game Six at 9:00 PM EST

The Oklahoma City Thunder have their backs up against the wall. After losing the first two games of the series, OKC literally stormed back (HA!) in games three and four to tie the series at two games apiece. The most recent matchup in this series was a blowout though. Houston beat down the Thunder 114-80 to take a 3-2 lead. Now, the Thunder are on the brink of elimination as they look to bounce back and push this series to seven games.

It should come as no surprise that James Harden has been incredible in the playoffs. In the Conference Quarterfinals, he has averaged 31.8 points, eight assists, and 6.6 rebounds per game against the Thunder. These numbers become even more impressive once you realize that Russell Westbrook has only played in one game so far this series. At this time, ESPN has listed Westbrook out for this game, so James Harden will have to put up at least 30 points if the Rockets hope to close out the Thunder.

Guard play has been the catalyst for OKC’s success in the playoffs this season. In fact, the trio of OKC Guards (Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) currently rank first, second, and third on the team in points per game. With Russell Westbrook listed as out for Game Six, I think this three-headed monster will be too much for James harden to handle by himself. That’s why I am feeling confident in OKC today.

Furthermore, I don’t believe Chris Paul is going to let OKC get bounced out tonight. The 10-time NBA All-Star has a clear chip on his shoulder after being traded out of Houston to Oklahoma last year. With no Russell Westbrook on the floor to counter Chris Paul, I would not be surprised to see him go for 25+ points and 10+ assists in this game.

This is a classic NBA playoff story. A player gets traded away from one team and then takes his new team to the playoffs where they face off against his old team. Right now, Chris Paul is the main character of this story. I believe he will personally drag the Thunder to a game seven, even if he has to do it by himself. I would pick the Rockets if Westbrook plays, but with him being ruled out due to injury, I am picking the Thunder to win tonight and force a game seven.

Thunder 109 – Rockets 107

NBA Bubble Preview For 8/10/2020

West gets a play-in game; Some series set in the East

We finally have some clarity on how the NBA playoffs might look. Yesterday, the Portland Trail Blazers’ victory over the 76ers eliminated the Pelicans and the Kings from the 2020 playoffs, effectively ending their seasons. The Spurs, Suns, Trail Blazers, and Grizzlies will be the four teams competing for the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs. As a result, a play-in series is guaranteed to take place in the West. It has still not been determined which teams will participate in that game. Today’s matchups will go a long way in deciding who gets to battle for that eighth seed in the West.

Two key games are being played today that will directly impact the playoffs. The first matchup is between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Phoenix Suns, who have not yet lost a game in the NBA bubble. After that, the Pacers and Heat will go head-to-head in a battle for the fourth spot in the East. These closely contested playoff races almost certainly make up for basketball’s near five-month absence.

Phoenix Suns (-5.0) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (+5.0) at 2:30 PM EST

These squads are both making a mad dash towards the end of bubble play with near opposite goals in mind. The Suns are looking to take their five-game win streak into the play-in series so they can qualify for the Western Conference playoffs as the eighth seed. As for the Thunder, they are looking to snag another win as they hope to challenge the Houston Rockets for one of the top seeds in the West. Either way, both teams will be entering today’s game hungry.

The Phoenix Suns have been the most surprising team in the NBA Bubble. It is no secret that the Suns have been basement-dwellers for the better part of a decade. The franchise has been at or towards the bottom of the NBA standings basically every year since they last made the playoffs in 2010. Despite this newfound tradition of losing, the Suns have managed to make the most of their bubble invitation, winning five straight games to put them in the conversation as one of the final teams to potentially make the NBA playoffs. If they hope to keep their postseason alive, then they will have to likely win all of their remaining games while also getting help from some other teams. As weird as this is to say, I actually have confidence in the Suns to win their games. I just don’t know if they are going to be able to get the losses they need from the Grizzlies and the Trail Blazers. Still, crazier things have happened.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have been a middle-of-the-road team since entering the bubble. They’re not bad, but I am not going to say they are great either. They’re 3-2 record has featured impressive wins over the Lakers, Jazz, and Wizards. However, they have also suffered untimely losses to the Grizzlies and Nuggets. As a result, they find themselves just one game behind the Rockets for the fourth spot in the West. I find this to be an impressive accomplishment since the Thunder got rid of former MVP Russell Westbrook for an aging superstar in Chris Paul. Still, the Thunder are hungry and determined to go out and get the job done today as they look to overtake the Rockets. With Billy Donovan at the helm, the Thunder will be able to make this an interesting game.

Besides TJ Warren, Suns’ Guard Devin Booker has been the best player since play began in the NBA Bubble. In five starts, Booker has averaged 29.4 points, 6.4 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game. I think the most impressive part about this run is that Booker has not been all that good from beyond the arc. This means that he has had to rely on efficient two-point field goals to get the job done. If Booker can find some rhythm from three-point land, then this team could be a lot of trouble for whoever they go up against in the coming days.

Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City Thunder are a little banged up, but that did not stop them from finding a win last time they played. Even though the Thunder were missing Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel, they still managed to top the Washington Wizards by a final score of 121-103. You have to give credit to OKC head coach Billy Donovan for the win. The Thunder were down two of their best big men, so they changed their approach and started shooting the ball from three. The team ended up going over 46% from beyond the arc on their way to 18 three-pointers in the game. Normally, I would have reservations about picking a team with injuries to key big men, but OKC’s excellent coaching makes it hard to go against them.

With all this in mind, I still have to pick the Phoenix Suns to win this game. I would be silly if I went against a team that has yet to lose since NBA action started back up. I am very impressed with the Oklahoma City Thunder. However, I think the Suns are on a mission to get to the playoffs and make themselves relevant again. I don’t know if they will get the outside losses they need to reach the postseason, but I am certain the Suns will be able to take care of business today on their way to a sixth straight victory. Thunder cover the spread, but the Suns still win

Suns 115 – Thunder 111

Miami Heat (-3.5) vs. Indiana Pacers (+3.5) at 8:00 PM EST

Our second game of the day features one of the most-highly anticipated head-to-head matchups of the NBA Bubble. The Miami Heat come into this game tied with the Indiana Pacers for the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The game will feature TJ Warren, the most exciting player in the NBA Bubble, taking on Jimmy Butler, the NBA’s most vicious trash talker. This showdown will surely be epic.

These teams have faced off twice so far this season. The Heat emerged victorious both times. The first game, Miami was able to edge out the Pacers by one point for a 113-112 win thanks to a go-ahead layup from Goran Dragic. The next time these teams played, the matchup was not as close, but the storylines coming out of the game were incredible. Jimmy Butler and TJ Warren exchanged words and elbows on the court as the Heat routed the Pacers 122-108. However, the jawing did not stop there. Butler used some harsh language to explain how he felt he was far better than TJ Warren after the game. Now, almost seven months later to the day, Butler will have a chance to back up his talk when he faces off against TJ Warren and the red-hot Pacers tonight.

“He’s soft… He’s not even in my f—ing league. Nowhere near me. If I was their coach, I would never put him on me. Ever again… He’s trash.”

Jimmy Butler On Indiana’s TJ Warren following a game in January

Jimmy Butler may have much more difficulty containing TJ Warren this time around. The 26-year-old Small Forward has been the best player in the NBA Bubble so far. The former first-round pick has averaged 34.8 points in five games in the Orlando Bubble. As a result, the Pacers have gone 4-1, which ties them with Toronto for the best record amongst Eastern Conference teams in the Bubble. Warren will have to have another 30+ point outing if the Pacers want to come out of this one on top.

The matchup between Jimmy Butler and TJ Warren will obviously be the most important matchup in the game. However, I believe the winner will be determined by role players because you can almost guarantee that both these stars will put up gaudy numbers today. Nobody has been able to stop either one of them yet, and I don’t see that changing tonight.

The numbers coming into this one slightly favor the Heat. Miami scores more points per game than Indiana while also average more assists and rebounds. However, the Pacers come into this one with a better overall shooting percentage and a better scoring defense. We have to go further down the lineup to determine who will end up winning this game.

I am favoring the Heat right now. Indiana has been able to survive without Domantas Sabonis because TJ Warren has been able to make up for that lack of scoring. However, Miami has one of the best big men in the NBA in Bam Adebayo, who has averaged a double-double in every game this season. I think this is going to be one of those games where Butler and Bam combine for somewhere between 50 and 60 points. I think the Heat just cover the 3.5 point spread on their way to yet another victory.

Heat 111 – Pacers 106

NBA Bubble Preview For 8/6/2020

Heat play the Bucks, Clippers take on Dallas, and Lakers face the Rockets

Things are getting weird in the NBA Bubble. The Phoenix Suns have managed to win every game they have played in Orlando since the restart. The Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Lakers by 29 points yesterday! And let’s not forget the Bucks losing to the G-league Nets. The chaos and uncertainty coming out of Orlando is intoxicating. Every game matters and nobody is quite sure who is going to win on a day-to-day basis. This may be the most interesting season in the history of the NBA.

As usual, six games are being played today starting at 1:30 PM and running all the way through 11 o’clock at night. All the matchups carry some weight and importance. However, I decided that we will try to focus on games that featured the NBA’s best and most interesting teams. That is why we will preview Heat-Bucks, Clippers-Mavericks, and briefly glance over Lakers-Rockets.

Milwaukee Bucks (-8.5) vs. Miami Heat (+8.5) at 4:00 PM EST

Is it safe to say that the bubble has not been kind to Milwaukee? The Milwaukee Bucks were the first team in the NBA to clinch a playoff berth this season. Also, they finished with the best regular-season record in the NBA. Yet, the Bucks cannot seem to get out of their own way as they have dropped their last two games to fall to 1-2 since NBA play restarted.

Milwaukee looked sharp in their first game back. The Bucks were able to top the Celtics 119-112 on July 31st. However, some would argue that referees handed the Bucks that victory by not calling late fouls on Giannis. Either way, Milwaukee barely got out of that game with the victory. Since then, things have only gotten worse for the Bucks. Following the win, Milwaukee lost to the Houston Rockets on Sunday by a score of 120-116. I am not a person that makes excuses for a team with high expectations, but I can forgive the Bucks for this loss. Houston is the second-highest scoring team in the NBA, and they are no stranger to meaningful basketball games. It’s acceptable to have a one-time loss to an out-of-conference opponent. However, I cannot justify Milwaukee’s loss to the Nets. Granted, Giannis only played in half the game, but when the Nets are missing at least five starters, I expect your team to beat them, especially when your squad averaged the most points per game in the NBA this season! In the end, the Nets won 119-116 for the largest upset victory in the NBA since the mid-90s. I have a feeling the Bucks are mad and feel embarrassed about that loss, so I could see them making a strong comeback tonight.

On the other side of the court, you have the Miami Heat, who are playing wonderfully. The Heat have played three teams so far and have a 2-1 record to show for it against three of the better-run franchises in the NBA. Their only loss in the bubble came against the defending NBA Champions by four points. Miami may be the hungrier team, but I think Milwaukee is going to come out with something to prove today after that embarrassment (and it was an embarrassment) against the Nets.

I am taking Milwaukee in this one, but 8.5 is a ridiculous spread. I am not sure if Vegas is very confident in the Bucks or not confident at all in the Heat. I’ll tell you this, I think both teams can make deep postseason runs. Unfortunately, Goran Dragic’s status for the game is up in the air. It will be huge if Dragic is unavailable because he is averaging 20 points, six rebounds, and five assists per game this season against the Bucks. If Dragic is unable to play or is even a little off, then I think this motivated Bucks team will be able to get the win. Milwaukee wins, but the Heat cover the point spread.

Bucks 120 – Heat 113

Los Angeles Clippers (-4.5) vs. Dallas Mavericks (+4.5) at 6:30 PM EST

Our second game of the day will be a matchup between one of the NBA’s preseason favorites and one of the league’s most exciting up-and-coming teams. The Los Angeles Clippers are looking to bounce back after a last-second loss to the Phoenix Suns. On the other side, the Dallas Mavericks are hoping to build momentum as they look for their first postseason birth since 2016.

The Milwaukee Bucks have arguably been the most disappointing team in the NBA bubble, but the Clippers are making a strong case as the second-most disappointing team in the bubble. Before the season began, the Clippers were given the best odds out of any team in the league to win the NBA championship at 7/2. The Clips have now fallen out of the top spot and have the third-highest odds out of any team in the bubble to win the NBA Championship. That’s not bad, but I think it is safe to say that the Clips have not yet been able to live up to all the expectations they had before the season began.

Simply put, the Clippers have not been impressive in the bubble. Their only win has come against a New Orleans Pelicans team that isn’t even one of the eight best teams in the Western Conference right now. Furthermore, they have lost close games to the Lakers and the Phoenix Suns (a team that hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2010). The Clippers are a very good team, but they have a lot left to prove in the Bubble, and I think they are now starting to realize that. I imagine their frustrations will be taken out on the Mavericks tonight.

Since the season began, the Dallas Mavericks have been considered “must-see-TV” because of their budding young star and play-style. The Mavs are the third-highest scoring team in the NBA. They also manage to shoot exceptionally well from beyond the arc. Furthermore, Luka Doncic has emerged as an NBA superstar, averaging 29 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game. A casual watcher of basketball would love getting a chance to see the Mavs play.

Unfortunately, Dallas is not a complete team. They have the offensive firepower to win games. However, the team has not been able to put the clamps down on anybody defensively towards the end of games. That’s why they have lost two matchups in overtime so far. They simply surrender too many points. I think Dallas’ defensive woes will be put on full display tonight when an angry (and dare I say, embarrassed) Kawhi Leonard takes the court looking to make up for the game-winning basket he allowed Devin Booker to make.

The Clippers are favored in this one, as they should be. Los Angeles is still one of the most talented teams in the NBA top to bottom. I think their defensive energies will be focused on making other players on Dallas not named Luka Doncic beat you. This game will be close, in typical Dallas fashion, but the Mavericks will end up losing the game, in typical Dallas fashion.

Clippers 119 – Maverics 115

Los Angeles Lakers (-1) vs Houston Rockets (+1) at 9:00 PM EST

I am going to try and keep this preview brief because you are probably sick of hearing me talk, or write, or whatever. The Los Angeles Lakers come into this game as just one-point favorites over the Houston Rockets. Both of these teams have looked great in the bubble. Houston has managed to pull off impressive wins over Dallas and Milwaukee. Meanwhile, the Lakers have already clinched the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

One of these teams has something to play tonight for while the other doesn’t. The Lakers are going to take their foot off the gas now that they have locked up the top seed in the West. You could see how lax their approach was yesterday after they lost to the Thunder by 29 points! LeBron was held to just 19 points on a night where LA shot the ball a little over 35% from the field.

Meanwhile, the Houston Rockets are still fighting and clawing their way into a position to steal the second seed from the Clippers. A victory tonight will go a long way in helping the Rockets’ playoff standings. Russell Westbrook is a little banged up, but I still expect Houston to come out in full force while the Lakers just coast by until the playoffs actually begin. The Rockets are going to rout the Lakers tonight. Get your popcorn ready because we are in for a clinic in how to score.

Rockets 131 – Lakers 100

NBA Bubble Preview For 8/4/2020

Celtics going up against the Heat; Rockets will take on the Trail Blazers

Yesterday was the first time since NBA action started back up again that I feel I nailed my picks. I was able to predict that the Toronto Raptors would beat the Miami Heat, and my pick of Lakers over the Jazz was also correct. I’m not here to brag though. I’m just saying that it had been a rough couple of days for my picks, so it’s nice to see that I actually got a few right. That’s all in the past now. I start a new day with a record of zero wins and zero losses as we look ahead to a pair of potential Conference Finals matchups.

As usual, we have six games on the NBA schedule today. We are going to focus our predictions on the two later games on TNT. The first matchup pits the Boston Celtics against the Miami Heat. After that, the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers go head-to-head as both teams look to climb up the Western Conference playoff standings.

Boston Celtics (-3.5) vs. Miami Heat (+3.5) at 6:30 PM EST

This may not be the sexiest game in the world because it is not littered with former MVPs or superstars like the later game, but I think this will be the best matchup in the NBA Bubble so far. The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics are two well-coached teams that are not afraid to go to their bench or role players to find scoring. I think the winning team will need a star player to score at least 30 points while other role players on the team put up double-digit scoring figures. A full-team effort will be needed from either side to win this game.

Boston and Miami currently have the same record since entering the NBA Bubble. Both teams are 1-1 since play restarted. Miami was able to beat up the Nuggets by 20 points for a 125-105 win in the team’s first bubble game. However, the Heat were edged out by four points yesterday against the Toronto Raptors to give them their first loss of the NBA restart. The Celtics’ experience in the bubble has been the complete opposite. The C’s lost their first game and ended up winning their second game. A victory for either team will go a long way in determining where these squads end up in the NBA playoff seeding.

The Celtics currently lead the season series against the Heat two games to none. The first victory came back in December when Boston played host to Miami. Statistically speaking, the first game between these two was incredibly balanced. The teams finished with near-identical three-point shooting percentages as well as field-goal percentages. However, the Heat turned the ball over eight more times than the Celtics, which allowed Boston to come away with the 112-93 victory. The second game between these two was much closer, but the result was still the same. The Celtics came out with the victory 109-101. Regardless, that goes out the window today as these teams face off for the first time in almost seven months.

The team that has gotten in Boston’s way the most is Boston. For example, the Celtics lost their game against the Bucks, but it easily could have been won. So why didn’t Boston beat Milwaukee? They missed every shot in the final 1:58 of the game. Furthermore, Boston went into halftime of their previous game up by 19 against the Trail Blazers. So the Celtics finished the game strong and snagged the blowout victory of Portland, right? Wrong. In fact, the Celtics allowed the Trail Blazers to come back into the game and take a four-point lead in the fourth quarter. Boston did end up eventually winning the game, but the victory should have come by way more than four points and should not have been as stressful as it was.

As for the Miami Heat, I think they are playing with house money. Over the last couple of years (since LeBron James left the Eastern Conference), there has been an expectation that the Boston Celtics would take the step forward and become the best team in the East. Instead, Boston was bounced out of the playoffs in the Conference finals in 2018 and the conference semifinals in 2019. Meanwhile, the Miami Heat have made the playoffs three times in the last six years and have continued to build and develop their roster with new, young talent. The unspoken pressure on the Celtics will be a little bit too much for them while the Heat will walk into this game relaxed and poised knowing they don’t have to prove themselves to anybody.

The numbers indicate that this will be an ugly, grind-it-out game. Both teams are respectable on offense, but defense is where they really shine. Celtics are third in scoring defense while the Heat are ranked 11th. With that in mind, I like the Heat to get the upset win. Miami is better at shooting the ball and is way better than Boston at passing the ball. That teamwork is going to play a huge role in the eventual win. I think the Heat have the guys to close out the Celtics down the line. I like Miami to win the game outright.

Heat 104 – Celtics 100

Houston Rockets (-4.0) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (+4.0) at 9:00 PM EST

Our last game of the day will be a star-studded matchup between Houston and Portland. The Trail Blazers are still looking to climb up the postseason rankings to solidify a spot for themselves in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Rockets hope to improve their standing and compete for the number two spot in the West. This game will certainly be exciting and high-scoring.

The Houston Rockets have looked like the most impressive team in the NBA Bubble since the season restarted. In their first game, Houston scored 153 points on its way to a four-point overtime victory against the Dallas Mavericks. Houston looked even better in their next outing as they beat the Milwaukee Bucks 120-116. Those two victories, one against an up-and-coming team and another against the best team in the NBA, have been the most impressive in Orlando so far. A third-straight win could be a huge factor in determining if the Rockets will be able to leapfrog the Nuggets or Clippers for the number two spot in the West.

Unfortunately for the Portland Trail Blazers, they still appear to be on the outside looking in. With two matchups under their belt, Portland only has six games left to jump the Memphis Grizzlies for the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs. In a normal NBA season, fans would be up-in-arms complaining that the Trail Blazers would be a playoff team if they were in the Eastern Conference. However, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic still affecting people’s day-to-day lives, that conversation takes a backseat as teams duke it out for the eighth seed in the Eastern and Western Conferences.

I believe that this game will be one of the most interesting in the NBA Bubble. The complexion of these teams is very similar. Houston is led by a tandem of all-star guards while Portland is also led by a tandem of all-star guards. Both teams put up a lot of points, but they give up a lot of points as well. However, the reason the Rockets are a better offensive team is because they take more chances from beyond the arc than anybody in the NBA. In fact, the Rockets attempt 44.6 three-pointers per game, which is three more on average than the next closest team. They’re a below-average three-point shooting team, but they attempt so many threes that they eventually hit some of them. Houston is the definition of a high-volume scoring team. Sure they will have a lot of misses, but they will also have a lot of makes because they have the green light to pull up from anywhere on the court.

My heart says the Rockets will win, but my gut wants to pick Portland because they are the more desperate team at the moment. Houston is good, but I think they will struggle against Portland. The Trail Blazers have a ferocious rebounder in Hassan Whiteside. Also, Portland big-man Jusuf Nurkic is averaging 24 points per game in the bubble. Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers have two guards in McCollum and Lillard that can go shot for shot with James Harden and Russell Westbrook. I think Portland just barely edges out the Rockets thanks to a signature clutch moment from Damian Lillard.

Trail Blazers 121 – Rockets 119

NBA Bubble Preview For 8/3/2020

Heat and the Raptors set to clash Lakers and Jazz face off for the third time

The bubble has been absolutely excellent so far. With the scheduling and intensity behind every game, it feels like the NBA is in a perpetual state of March Madness. Every game counts and there always seems to be basketball on the television. The National Basketball Association is clearly the best run professional sports league in the United States.

There are six games on the NBA docket today. I will be covering just two of them. First, the Raptors and Heat go head-to-head in a game that will have major implications on playoff seeding in the East. Later on in the evening, the Lakers take on the Utah Jazz.

Toronto Raptors (-3.5) vs. Miami Heat (+3.5) at 1:30 PM EST

Our first game of the day features two of the most evenly matched teams in the Eastern Conference. On one side, you have the Toronto Raptors, who are looking for their second straight win in the bubble. Meanwhile, the Miami Heat are hoping to build on their first win against the Nuggets. This will surely be an excellent matchup.

These teams have several similarities, but that didn’t stop Miami from winning the first two games of the season series against Toronto. The Heat were able to beat the Raptors 121-110 in the first game they played against each other this season. The second time these teams faced off was a much more defensive battle. The Heat would limit the Raptors to just 76 points for an 84-76 victory. I expect tonight’s game to have a different outcome.

I think this is going to be one of those games where coaching plays a huge role in who comes out victorious. Erik Spoelstra has proven time and time again that he is an excellent leader. Spoelstra famously led Miami to back-to-back NBA Titles during the Heat’s big-three era with D-Wade, LeBron, and Chris Bosh. He has been able to have success beyond that four-year stretch too, leading the Heat to the playoffs in 2016, 2018, and this year. Erik Spoelstra has earned our respect as a head coach in the NBA.

With that being said, I still believe Nick Nurse is a better coach than Spoelstra. Toronto’s head coach was just recently named a Finalist for the Coach of the Year award, and he definitely seems deserving. Nurse was able to lead the Raptors to their first NBA Championship last season. Following that victory, the team’s best player decided to leave the franchise to go play basketball for the Clippers. So how did Nick Nurse respond? By leading Toronto to a 47-18 record, giving the Raptors a higher winning percentage than last year. Do you get what I am saying? Nick Nurse lost the team’s best player and led the Raptors to a better record this year than last year. I could heap praise on to Nick Nurse all day long. I think he has a slight advantage in the coaching department.

The numbers indicate that this will be a close game. The Heat average 112.3 points per game while the Raps average 112.9. Also, both these teams have tremendous defenses. Toronto is the best defensive team in the NBA while Miami is ranked 11th. The Raptors have an edge in rebounds per game, but the Heat come into this with an advantage in the assists category. These teams are so evenly matched that I think the deciding factor in this game will come down to a few key individuals.

The complexion of these teams is incredibly similar. Both franchises are coached by an excellent leader that knows how to win Championships. Furthermore, both teams are fueled by the production that comes from their three-headed monster. The Heat are led by Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Kendrick Nunn. Meanwhile, the Raptors have been able to replicate their success from last year with Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and Fred VanVleet.

When all is said and done, I think the Raptors have a little more talent than the Heat, which will probably lead them to the win. I really like Butler and Adebayo, but my confidence in this team goes down tremendously once you get past those guys. On the other hand, the Raptors have proven that they can beat anybody in the league (regardless of talent) and look to have a hot hand right now. Miami covers the spread, but Toronto still wins.

Raptors 100 – Heat 97

Los Angeles Lakers (-6.5) vs. Utah Jazz (+6.5) at 9:00 PM EST

The other game of the day we will be previewing pits two of the top teams in the Western Conference against one another. However, both teams will be coming into tonight’s game motivated after suffering tough losses over the weekend. The Lakers were beaten by the Raptors 107-92 on Saturday. Meanwhile, the Thunder were able to beat the Jazz two days ago by a final score of 110-94. Thankfully, one of these teams will be able to break their skid with a victory tonight.

These teams are no strangers to one another. Prior to the NBA pause, these squads faced off twice in the 2019-20 season, and the Lakers managed to win both games. The first victory came back in October when LA beat Utah 95-86 thanks to 53 combined points from LeBron and Anthony Davis. The second time these teams faced off, the game was an even bigger blowout. LA ended up putting the hurt on Utah 121-96. The Lakers have had more talent than the Jazz all year long. This fact will be proven tonight when LA beats Utah for the third time this year.

The Utah Jazz are an enigma. As things stand right now, Utah is the fifth-seeded team in the Western Conference and has the ninth-best overall record in the NBA. However, Utah has had struggles against good teams in recent outings. The Jazz did beat the Pelicans, but that victory was sandwiched between two rough losses to two of the better teams in the NBA, the Raptors and Thunder. I worry the Jazz will not have enough gas in the tank ton upset the Lakers.

I think the Utah Jazz are a playoff-caliber team. I am not willing to say they are a Championship team though. Their star players don’t wow me in clutch moments, and the Jazz have not made deep postseason runs over the last couple of years. Utah will give the Lakers fits, but I still think LA comes out of this one victorious.

Both squads have been relying on defense to get the job done in the bubble. The Lakers and Jazz have limited opponents to about 100 points per game while also averaging around 100 points per game on offense. At the end of the day, I just trust the Lakers more to find the bottom of the basket when they shoot the ball. With a field goal percentage of 48.1%, the Lakers are the most accurate shooting team in the NBA. I also believe that LeBron, AD, and the rest of LA’s big men will be too much for Utah to handle. The Jazz cover the point spread, but the Lakers hold on for the eventual win.

Lakers 100 – Jazz 94