Time for final playoff push

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With a memorable All-Star break in the books, the NBA returns for the final 25-plus games of a regular season that has seen ratings decline despite some intriguing subplots.

With football in the books and an 8 percent increase in viewership over last year for the All-Star weekend, there’s tremendous momentum in place for a strong finish.

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LeBron James has remained healthy and looks rejuvenated after missing the playoffs a year ago. He and Defensive Player of the Year favorite, Anthony Davis, have formed the league’s most dynamic duo. At 9-4 at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, the Lakers open the stretch run as the favorite to win the title, ahead of the Bucks (11-4) and Clippers (3-1).

The Clips remain my choice to win it all but should probably see more enticing odds than currently available.

Zion Williamson has debuted and carries a streak of consecutive 30-point games into the week. Despite New Orleans remaining well behind the pace in the playoff race, Williamson has seen his Rookie of the Year odds moved from 20-1 when he debuted to 3-1 to minimize exposure. Favorite Ja Morant has come down from -1000 to -500 but remains an overwhelming favorite.

With the XFL’s early buzz taking a hit after a brutal Week 2, the NBA has an opportunity to take over after March Madness and should have a playoff push fueled by the top two selections in the most recent draft, Williamson and Memphis’ Morant, aid the cause. Those two are among the most exciting athletes to enter the league in a long time, so don’t overlook their potential impact simply because they’re rookies. 

Although Williamson should continue to put up eye-popping numbers, he’s not going to play in back-to-backs and is unlikely to play more than 34 games for the season. That’s not going to be enough to sway voting media members off Morant, who has dazzled in leading the young Grizzlies into a playoff spot if the season ended today. Barring injury, top rookie honors will be his.

If we’re looking to get paid on a lottery ticket via futures, it’s a better bet to fade Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks in the postseason than the man himself in the MVP race.

Antetokounmpo (2-5) is a near lock to win MVP since Milwaukee is making a run at a 70-win season and he’s been the driving force night after night. L.A.’s James (9-2) will be hurt by playing with another All-NBA candidate in Davis, so I don’t recommend backing him or any long shots to displace the “Greek Freak” as the league’s top player. He’ll win his second straight award, becoming the first player to do so since Stephen Curry (’15-’16) to repeat.

The Bucks will have a walkthrough as the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but then will have trouble spots to navigate that make their current position as a 1-2 (-200) favorite an awful play when you consider I told you to get in earlier this season when they were at plus and even money. If you missed that memo, move on to Plan B and the possibility of Milwaukee’s playoff shortcomings tripping up another promising season.

The Raptors saw a 15-game winning streak end just before the break and has rarely been fully healthy despite owning the Atlantic Division lead and the second-best record in the East. At 8-1 to win the conference, they offer great value.

Miami added versatile veterans Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder without sacrificing much of this season’s core at the trade deadline and is similarly a fantastic buy at 8-1. All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo can really clamp down defensively, which will make the Heat a tough out.

The Celtics and 76ers are each available at 7-1 and also have multiple All-Stars leading in deep, athletic rosters. Buying in at 30-1 with a Pacers team that now has Victor Oladipo back and may be ready to take a step forward is also worth looking into.

My recommendation is to lock in either of the 8-1 options, Toronto or Miami, since no one still sees them coming. Even if the Bucks hold serve, getting in on the overlooked Raptors and Heat at this stage of the game should make for an entertaining and profitable May.

Friday

Pacers at Knicks: With the regular season resuming, we’ve got individual games to snack on. We’ll start Friday night by fading the woeful Knicks as they host the Pacers as a likely eight-point underdog. 

Although it showed off a pulse despite training one of the few bright spots, Marcus Morris, to the Clippers, New York players were booed off the floor in a 114-96 home loss to Washington on Feb. 12 and will likely hear a similar serenade after a double-digit loss to Indiana. Nate McMillan will have his group ready to start their push. PACERS

Saturday

Mavericks at Hawks: Last season’s top rookies, Mavs wing Luka Doncic and Hawks guard Trae Young, took the court together in Chicago at All-Star but haven’t faced off since December 2018 with Doncic sidelined for Dallas’ 123-100 win on Feb. 1 due to his ankle injury.

He’ll be in the mix on Saturday for what should be an entertaining, high-scoring game. Look for a total in the 230s to be topped and ride the high side. OVER

Sunday

Pistons at Trail Blazers: This is a game the short-handed Trail Blazers badly need as they try and avoid missing the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference. Detroit is rebuilding after moving on from Andre Drummond but is defending with more intensity.

The spread will likely be inflated, so take roughly 10 points with the visitors. PISTONS

Last week: No selections

Season: 25-19-1

 

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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