Rockets ready to blast off in West?

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The “seeding season” of eight games for each of the 22 teams playing in Orlando draws to a close this week with the playoffs scheduled to begin next Monday.

Entering play Tuesday, 15 of the 16 playoff teams are known with only the eighth and ninth seed in the West presenting true drama. Five teams entered Orlando vying for the eighth and ninth seeds. Only two have been eliminated.  One is a team the NBA had hoped would make the playoffs. But rookie Zion Williamson and his New Orleans teammates could manage just two wins in its first six games. Sacramento was also eliminated with Sunday’s loss, its fifth in six games.

A play-in between the eighth and ninth seeds is guaranteed. Just a half-game separated eighth-seeded Memphis and ninth-seeded Portland through Monday with Phoenix and San Antonio just a half-game behind the Trail Blazers.   Memphis arrived in Orlando with a 3.5-game lead over three teams. But the Grizzlies lost their first four games before splitting their next two and their 1-5 record (both SU and ATS) allowed the trailing trio to make up ground.

Of that trio, Phoenix has been by far the most impressive. Starting seeding play seeded 13th and six games behind Memphis the Suns were 6-0 both SU and ATS following Monday’s win over Oklahoma City.

Prior to the start of the seeding games Memphis was the odds on 5-6 favorite to earn the eighth seed while Phoenix was 60-1, having opened on June 6 at 200-1. One can only wonder if it was sharp money that foresaw the Suns’ perfect run to date.

The only Eastern drama remaining is the positioning of the fourth through six seeds. Milwaukee, Toronto and Boston have clinched the top three seeds respectively with Brooklyn and Orlando seeded seventh and eighth. The sixth seed is advantageous as finishing fourth or fifth means facing the Bucks in the second round.

The NBA playoffs often go to form so the expected NBA Finals matchup should be Milwaukee vs. the Lakers. Both top seeds were the best in their conference for virtually the entire season and were not hard-pressed to clinch the top seeds during this eight-game stretch run.

But given the unique set of circumstances that will bring the 2019-20 season to an end in mid-October we could see some upsets along the way, including either the Bucks or Lakers failing to make the Finals.

Second-seeded Toronto could give Milwaukee a challenge. Despite losing Kawhi Leonard last offseason, the defending champion Raptors will finish this shortened season with more than 50 wins. They ousted the Bucks last season in the Eastern Finals despite losing the first two games on the road and have played well in Orlando (5-1 SU and ATS).

In the West, James Harden returned in excellent shape and shook off the shooting slump that plagued him for much of the final two weeks prior to the shutdown (44 for 123, 35.8%). He and Russell Westbrook can carry the load for the Rockets with assistance inside from Robert Covington. Perhaps in a season in which little is expected of the Rockets in the Playoffs this is finally their season.

It’s always easiest to make a case for the chalk but I’ll go in a slightly different direction. Milwaukee has been solid all season and has the NBA’s best record. I project the Bucks to make the NBA Finals and defeat the Houston Rockets.

Thursday

Wizards vs. Celtics: Boston will be using this game as a tune up for the playoffs where they’ll be the East’s third seed. Although going 4-2 through Monday, Boston was a disappointing 2-3-1 ATS.

Washington was the lone winless team through Monday (0-6) with all losses from 8 to 19 points and an average of 11.7 points per game. Their 1-5 ATS mark was second only to the Lakers’ 1-6 but the Lakers were largely just going through the motions after clinching the West’s top seed.

This is the day’s first game and the Wizards may have little interest in challenging the Celtics, especially if they fall behind early. Their biggest burst of energy may come following the game as they race to the bus to depart Orlando. CELTICS

Kings vs Lakers: Sacramento has been eliminated while the Lakers clinched the West’s top seed on Aug. 3 and have coasted since with their 1-6 ATS record (3-4 SU).

This should be their tuneup game for the playoffs and they enter well-rested after having last played on Monday. LeBron James and Anthony Davis logged 35 or more minutes in each of the prior two games but they’ll look to be sharp when they open the playoffs against an eighth seed that has been effectively playing playoff basketball since play resumed two weeks ago. LAKERS

Last week: 2-1

Season: 35-27-1

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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