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As with most sports teams have up and down cycles throughout the regular season with the hopes of being healthy and playing its best as the Playoffs approach. Teams that look unbeatable in November may look disorganized in January. Longshots that get off to hot starts often play down to their expected levels by midseason.

This is typical of the NBA as well and it is important to identify and take advantage of these cycles when they appear. Of course there is no way to know when a cycle, or streak, is about to begin or when it will end. But when teams start to play well under difficult circumstances or play poorly under favorable conditions those are often such signals.

Playing well in difficult circumstances would involve teams playing well on the road over or at the end of a tough portion of the schedule such as the third game in four nights or towards the end of a lengthy road trip.

Struggles would be indicated by playing poorly at home after a good road trip or playing poorly following several periods of rest such as having not played back to back games in a week or so.

An important part of handicapping the NBA is looking at the schedule and identifying those games in which a team’s level of performance might be expected to be above or below established norms due to the scheduling dynamics involved.

Over the past decade or so handicapping the NBA has become less an exercise in developing accurate Power Ratings than in understanding and identifying the scheduling dynamics at work. Years ago Power Ratings were the goal of professional handicappers when information was harder to acquire. The power of computing and handling vast amounts of date was not yet in vogue and the Internet was a science fiction concept to all but a very few in the early stages of its development.

Nowadays everyone has access to vast amounts of information on an almost immediate basis. There are few secrets in the marketplace and those that are there do not last very long in the age of Twitterdom.

Interpreting the data has made handicapping and betting much more of an art than a science.

Some noteworthy developments in the NBA include the developing race in the Atlantic Division for the team that will ultimately be seeded second behind Cleveland in the Eastern Conference. For much of the season Toronto was in complete command of the Division but as this week dawns on Monday the 24-13 Raptors are in a mild slump, having dropped 5 of 7 through Sunday while Boston, winners of 4 straight and 10 of 12 have closed to within a game of Toronto at 23-14.

Houston is more than just James Harden and the Rockets, winners of 8 straight and 19 of 21 have closed to within one game of San Antonio in the Southwest Division at 30-9 (the Spurs are 30-7). Both are closing in on Golden State whose 32-6 record remains the best in the NBA.

The LA Clippers, who started the season red hot but then cooled quickly, have started to play well once again. Through Sunday the Clippers had won 4 in a row following 6 straight losses.

Within the next week or so teams will reach the midpoint of the regular season by playing game No. 41. As both the All Star break and the trade deadline approach teams will begin to assess their situations and chances of making the Playoffs so trade speculation will surface. Keep an eye on those teams that are contemplating being buyers and those that are sellers as those decisions should impact the performance of those teams in March and April.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

Boston at Atlanta (Fri.): Atlanta has been one of the teams mentioned as a possible trader of talent and beginning to look towards next season. This is odd since the Hawks are playing their best basketball of the season and through Sunday had won 6 straight, covering in the last 5. Boston is also playing its best ball of the season. This should be a well-played game as they meet for the first time this season.

Atlanta’s Dwight Howard remains an enigma although his play has not had the negative impact recently as it did earlier. Boston plays physical and that could be disruptive against the finesse oriented Hawks. Atlanta likely comes in a small home favorite. Neither team played Thursday so both teams should be at their best. BOSTON

LA Lakers at LA Clippers (Sat.): The Staples Center co-tenants meet for the second time this season. The Lakers broke open a close game at the half to win 111-102 setting up this revenge spot for the Playoff bound Clippers. That win was just on of two wins for the Lakers in a 17 game stretch from early December through New Year’s Day. Since then the Lakers had won 3 of 4 which should attract the attention of their opponent.

 The Lakers last played at San Antonio on Thursday and host Detroit on Sunday. The Clippers last hosted Orlando on Wednesday and next host Oklahoma City on Monday, making this a more favorable spot for them.

Looking to maintain their position as the clearly better team in Los Angeles the Clippers should be focused to avoid a second straight loss to their rivals. LA CLIPPERS

New York at Toronto (Sun.): Toronto is playing to maintain their lead over Boston atop the Atlantic Division whereas the Knicks are seeking to regain their early season momentum that had them thinking a four or five seed in the weaker Eastern Conference.

But their recent 3-10 run has the Knicks at 17-20 and sitting eleventh in the Conference. In their only prior meeting the Raptors defeated the Knicks 118-107 on this court in mid November. The game went OVER the Total by 17 points.

The Knicks have been on a small OVER run over the past couple of weeks and has played more OVERs than UNDERs this season.

Toronto has been a strong OVER team since the start of the season and their 24-13 record to the OVER is the best in the East and only the Lakers have played more OVERs (25) in the league. OVER.

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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