With the five games played on Christmas Day serving as an introduction to the current NBA season, for many casual fans interest will intensify as temperatures continue to drop and winter is in full force across the nation.
For those who have not been following the NBA closely most of the usual suspects remain atop the standings with Golden State and Cleveland on a course that would take them to a fourth straight meeting in the NBA Finals next June.The Warriors have been challenged for the first two and a half months of this season for supremacy in the Western Conference by the Houston Rockets.
For much of the season the Rockets had the best record in the league but a pair of losses last week to the two Los Angeles teams – the Lakers and the Clippers – have enabled the Warriors to pull within one game of the Rockets for the top spot, pending the results of their Christmas Day games. Golden State hosted Cleveland in their first of two meetings following last season’s Finals and Houston traveled to Oklahoma City for a game against the Thunder.
Houston’s losses to the Lakers and Clippers were both at home as the Rockets were finishing a seven-game homestand. The loss to the Lakers snapped a 14-game winning streak and was followed by a 10-point home loss to the Clippers. A Christmas night loss at OKC would give the Rockets a three-game losing streak but no cause for alarm or concern. Almost every top team goes through a slump at some point during the long regular season.
Cleveland’s slump may have come early as the Cavs lost four in a row following a 3-1 start and stood 5-7 three weeks into the season. Cleveland then won 19 of its next 21 games heading into Christmas Day (including a 13-game winning streak) to almost take over the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
The key word is “almost” as both the Cavs and Boston Celtics each had just nine losses but Boston had played three more games, all wins. Boston had also been the hot story over the first two months of the season, overcoming an 0-2 start by winning their next 16 in a row to stand 16-2. After their streak was broken the Celtics won six of their next seven to improve to 22-4 through Dec. 6.
But then Boston hit a rough patch, going 4-5 over their next nine games prior to a pair of wins, including a win at New York in the first of the Christmas Day quintuple. At 28-9 the Celtics have to be considered at least a challenger to Cleveland for the Eastern Conference title. How serious a challenger is yet to be determined. But Boston’s rise is even more remarkable considering their prized offseason acquisition, free agent Gordon Hayward, was lost for the season barely minutes into their opening game loss at Cleveland.
Some teams that have struggled in recent seasons are serving notice that the bleak times are behind them as both Minnesota and Philadelphia have had promising starts to their seasons. That is especially true of Minnesota, which stood 20-13 through Sunday and atop the Northwest Division. This is a young and talented team that acquired Jimmy Butler from Chicago and had been disappointing through most of the season’s first two months with only occasional flashes of playing to their full potential.
Oklahoma City is another team that went through significant personnel changes in the offseason. The Thunder got off to a poor start but has turned things around in recent weeks, winning 6 of 7 and 10 of 13 through Sunday. But even this current run of success has not been seen at the betting windows as OKC is just 4-9 in this 13-game stretch and, going back a bit further, are 5-14-1 ATS dating back to Nov. 15.
The current NBA season is within weeks of reaching the midpoint of the regular season. For many it is just beginning and not just because the followers are late comers but because the season is really just starting to take the shape.
As I wish all readers a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year, here are looks at three games over the weekend.
Houston at Washington (Friday): Although Washington is atop the Southeast Division at 18-15, their performance to date is more of a disappointment. Houston likely comes up a slight road favorite and even though they are battling through some injuries they will have, in James Harden, the best player on the court. This could feature a contrast in styles as Houston has gone 8-1 to the OVER in recent weeks while the Wizards were on a 9-2 run to the UNDER. HOUSTON
Cleveland at Utah (Saturday): Since then Utah has gone just 2-8. Much of their recent swoon has been on the road as the Jazz are a solid 12-6 at home that includes dropping 4 of 5 at home in early November, going 6-2 since. As you would expect, Cleveland has played well both at home and on the road and should be modest favorites for this road game. Look for this game to be very competitive as well with Utah capable of the outright win such as they got when these teams met here last January. UTAH
Minnesota at Indiana (Sunday): Indiana has a new look since last season with Paul George having departed for Oklahoma City; and after enduring a four-game losing streak in November they’ve started to play better basketball more consistently. A nice revenge spot for the visitors and veteran coach Tom Thibodeau can use this as a motivating challenge for his team. Jimmy Butler is clearly having an impact on the young T-Wolves and he has become a leader both on and off the court. MINNESOTA