Time is running out for those NBA teams on the outside of the playoffs seeking to make a late charge to be part of the postseason party. Teams have roughly a dozen or so games remaining until the regular season ends in three weeks.
Four teams in the Eastern Conference have officially clinched playoff spots with Miami, New York, Indiana and Brooklyn guaranteed to be playing a month from now. Atlanta, Chicago, Boston and Milwaukee are likely to round out the eight team field within the next week or so. There is a huge eight game gap between eighth seeded Milwaukee and ninth seeded Philadelphia.
The situation is much more interesting in the West. Although five teams have already secured playoff berths, four teams are separated by just three games for the final spot. San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Denver, the L A Clippers and Memphis have clinched with a slim half game separating the Nuggets, Clippers and Grizzlies for the third through fifth seeds.
Golden State is battling Houston for the sixth and seventh seeds with virtually no chance at moving up higher. The Los Angeles Lakers do control the eighth and final playoff spot but are up by just two games over both Utah and Dallas with Portland just one game behind that duo.
Of course the big story in the NBA remains Miami’s chase of the all-time winning streak record of 33 in a row set by the Los Angeles Lakers more than a generation ago. The Heat streak was at 26 through Sunday and if all goes according to form will be at 29 in a row when Miami plays at San Antonio on Sunday. More on this game later.
As we approach the end of the season it can be beneficial to play on some of the teams out of contention. Those teams are already looking to next season and using the final few weeks of the season often to audition bench players for possibly expanded roles next season.
Perhaps the best example of such a team this season is Washington. The lowly Wizards are just 25-44 through Sunday. Their poor start to the season was largely due to the extended absence of John Wall. Yet despite not being in the playoff race for months the Wizards actually have a winning record going back more than two months. Washington is 21-19 over its last 40 games yet because of its poor overall record will rarely get mentioned as a team playing well.
The Wizards have also fared well ATS, especially as underdogs. Over the short term Washington is 9-4 ATS since early February as underdogs and 19-8 in that role in calendar year 2013.
As the stretch run begins many teams will be in must-win situations and it is important to differentiate in the various types of ’must win’ games.
The first type is the more common significant, of must win games and involves teams that need victories to stay alive for making the playoffs. Often these are the teams that are around .500 and are not given much of a chance to contend for the NBA Title but might be able to win an opening series.
For the most part these are mediocre teams that have not been able to win with much consistency over the bulk of the season – which is why they are in this type of must win situation in late March and early April.
More often than not such teams will be laying an inflated number when favored in must win spots, or getting fewer points as an underdog, because of the importance of the current game. Because these teams have not been able to show the kind of consistency shown by the more elite teams, teams in this kind of must win game usually makes for bad bets.
As the old saying goes, “must win does not mean will win.” Often opposing coaches, especially when the opponent is a team out of the playoff race, can use this situation to their motivational edge by challenging its team to win a game that carries great importance to its foe.
The other type of must win game is really a misnomer. These are game that if a team wins, its Playoff positioning will be improved. For example, Denver may be in a so-called ‘must win’ game in order to secure the fourth seed in the Western Conference.
More appropriately this is a game in which a win carries a nice benefit. But this is not, in the truest sense, a must win situation. These teams are generally accustomed to winning and can often be attractive bets since they have demonstrated their strength and ability to answer challenges throughout the season.
Here’s a look at three games to be played this weekend.
Atlanta at Boston (Fri.): Both teams are battling for playoff positioning in the East with Atlanta in better shape than the Celtics with two fewer losses. Boston can cut that gap in half with a win here as the teams meet for a fourth time. The Celtics have won two of the three prior meetings including on this court in their most recent meeting earlier this month. Time is running out for the aging Celtics who are expected to have a vastly different look next season.
Boston still has a pair of big time players in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce who have carried the C’s to big wins in the past. Garnett was banged up early in the week and could miss this game which would likely lower the spread by a bucket. Although not a must win spot – for either team – the situation does favor the hosts. Atlanta is the final game of a four game road trip with a home game on Saturday while the Celtics are off until Sunday. BOSTON.
Brooklyn at Utah (Sat.): Brooklyn is in the playoffs and still has the chance to earn the number two seed if they can make up two games on both the Knicks Indiana. Utah won at Brooklyn in the earlier meeting of these teams, 92-90, as 4.5 point underdogs back on December 18. Utah is two games behind the Lakers for the final Western Playoff spot. Both teams are in the second of back to back games in different cities. Utah was in Portland on Friday night whereas the Nets were in Denver.
Despite the above musings about teams in must win situations such as Utah is in here, there are exceptions in looking to play against such teams. First, Brooklyn is in the seventh game of a grueling eight game road trip. Secondly, back to back road games in Denver and Utah are never easy. And, finally, Utah has been a solid team at home with its 24-9 SU record and 20-13 ATS record. UTAH.
Miami at San Antonio (Sun.): This could well be an epic game if Miami, as expected, winds up going for their 30th straight win. Much of the nation will be rooting for the Heat as rooting against. San Antonio has been one of the classiest and most successful teams in the NBA for more than the past decade. They start the week with a 1½ game edge over Oklahoma City for the top seed in the West and have only three fewer losses than does Miami. Their first meeting this season, on Nov..29, was memorable.
That was the game, if you recall, when coach Gregg Popovich sent his three key starters home and played mostly backups in a move that was roundly criticized. This decision led to Miami being a huge 13.5 point favorite yet the backup Spurs took Miami to the wire and led much of the way before falling 105-100. The Spurs will be up for this rematch and might even be the slightest of favorites. As the saying goes, “all good things must end” and so it may very well here. SAN ANTONIO.
Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to Gaming Today readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Contact Andy at [email protected]