Back Magic, Pelicans down stretch

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The arrival of March means the sense of urgency gets ramped up throughout the NBA.

Rest assured, there will still be upsets and no-shows from teams that should know better, but reaching the final 20-game stretch of the season means excuses go out the window and teams start manufacturing the intensity required to thrive in the playoffs.

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With that in mind, I’ve pinpointed three teams worth riding and one worth fading down the stretch over the next six week.

Quietly, Milwaukee was made the favorite (9-4) to win the NBA title ahead of the Lakers and Clippers (both 11-4) at Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook on Monday. The Bucks lost to Miami for the second time this season to open the week and won’t be matching the Warriors’ all-time record with 73 wins unless they win all their remaining games, which should make it easier to coast down the stretch.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing just under 31 minutes per game since he rarely has to play late in the fourth quarter of games due to the outcome so frequently already being decided. So load maintenance has yet to come into play for the MVP favorite. Expect that to change here and there down the stretch.

The Bucks will play just two more back-to-backs, doing so this week at Phoenix Sunday and Denver on Monday and at Cleveland and home to Atlanta just before the regular season ends. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the “Greek Freak” sit out one of the games in each set, so be ready to take advantage.

Milwaukee opens next month with a home-and-home against Toronto before visits to Boston and Philadelphia, so reaching even 70 wins would be an accomplishment.

While it may be profitable to fade the Bucks before the playoffs begin, they’re still my team to beat in the East as they’ve been all season. My projected champion has been the Clippers, who will have huge games on Thursday night and Sunday afternoon against the Rockets and Lakers, the two teams expected to be their top competition to overcome in the West.

After these games, the schedule will featured mostly teams under .500 over the final five weeks, starting with next Tuesday’s visit to hapless Golden State. They’ll play the Lakers as a “road” team in April, but will play only two other teams with winning records among their remaining 10 contests outside Staples Center. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George still haven’t gotten as much practice time as Doc Rivers would like, but L.A. is 21-6 with both in the lineup entering Tuesday’s visit to Oklahoma City and will start ramping up the intensity to ensure both are in a groove and comfortable playing together as the playoffs approach.

While you’ll be laying points in a lot of games down the stretch, the fact that Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell anchor the second unit and Reggie Jackson came aboard to be a force in garbage time means they have the personnel to blow out bad teams nightly. So long as their intensity level ramps up as expected, you should be riding the Clippers for the better part of the next few weeks.

The New Orleans Pelicans have the lightest remaining schedule of any NBA team and have a healthy deficit to chase down with Memphis having overcome their recent slump in the race for the No. 8 seed. But we can already see oddsmakers treating them with more respect than any other team with a losing record. Zion Williamson has been a force and Brandon Ingram continues to be one of the league’s top scorers despite having to share the wealth more, so their level should rise to the point where they’re covering most spreads. So long as the books don’t get too carried away, New Orleans is worth riding.

Orlando is the third team we’re looking to ride down the stretch despite opening March by being upset at home by the Damian Lillard-less Trail Blazers. After visiting Miami on Wednesday, the Magic visit Minnesota, Houston and Memphis, continuing a stretch where it will face just two teams with winning records between now and April 1.

So long as Aaron Gordon is able to overcome the knee soreness that kept him out against Portland and picks up where he left off averaging 18.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and nearly six assists while shooting 39 percent from 3-point range in February, expect Orlando to emerge as the East’s No. 7 seed, avoiding lethal Milwaukee in the first round.

Friday

Pacers at Bulls: Indiana has gotten great play from T.J. Warren of late and is looking to surpass the banged-up 76ers for the No. 5 seed in the East. With Chicago star Zach LaVine working through a quad injury and Lauri Markkanen still out, the Bulls won’t have the ammo to hang at home despite pulling off an upset of Dallas to open the week. PACERS

Saturday

Hawks at Grizzlies: Atlanta fell 127-88 at home against the Grizzlies on Monday, hanging its head in being outscored 75-39 in the second half. Count on Trae Young and the young Hawks to bounce back in Saturday night’s visit, covering what will likely be a six-point spread against a Memphis team working without top power forwards Jaren Jackson, Jr. and Brandon Clarke. HAWKS

Sunday

Spurs at Cavaliers: Cleveland has looked better since J.B. Bickerstaff replaced John Beilein after the veteran college coach stepped down, but the Spurs hope to extend their run of playoff appearances that dates back to 1997 and should stay on the Grizzlies’ tail with a comfortable win over the Cavs as a likely six-point road favorite. SPURS

Last week: 1-2

Season: 28-22-1

About the Author

Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia has been a national sportswriter for nearly two decades and has covered NBA and college basketball as a columnist, analyst, handicapper, and bracketologist for CBS Sports, Pro Basketball News, and numerous other sites.

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