By Al McMordie
The NBA season enters this Christmas holiday week with last year’s two Finalists — Cleveland and Golden State — atop the Eastern and Western Conference, respectively. They’ll square off against each other in the featured game on Sunday’s five-game slate. And, as we sit here today, it likely will be the first of at least six meetings this season, given the paucity of contenders. Let’s check out the other goings-on in the NBA.
The Utah Jazz are 18-10 on the season, a testament to the great coaching job being done by Quin Snyder. Utah was beset by multiple injuries early, but Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors are now back on the court (though George Hill and Alec Burks are currently sidelined).
The balance being displayed by the Jazz is impressive, as it currently ranks 4th in defensive efficiency, and 7th in offensive efficiency. Only three other teams rank in the Top 10 in each category: Golden State, San Antonio and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Utah is now 9-2-2 ATS its last 13 games, a stretch bested only by Toronto, which is on an 11-2 ATS run.
This week, the Jazz will surely be tested as two of its three games are against the NBA’s best team (Golden State) and hottest ATS team (Toronto), with a game vs. Sacramento sandwiched, in between.
The Jazz actually met Golden State less than two weeks ago, but was severely short-handed in that game, with four starters out with injury. Thus, the game on Tuesday night at Golden State will be a much better measuring stick for Utah. But it will be tough, given that the Warriors have won 12 of the last 13 in the series (8-5 ATS), and will also be playing at home with 2 days of rest (31-16 ATS in that situation).
If you quizzed NBA fans, most would be surprised to learn that the Golden State Warriors are not #1 in offensive efficiency this season, given that they are averaging 117.9 ppg. But it’s the Raptors who actually lead in that category. Even more surprising is Golden State’s defensive efficiency ranking. They lost their center, defensive stalwart Andrew Bogut, to the Mavericks. And they opened the season by surrendering 129 points to San Antonio.
We all know that first impressions die hard, so most fans would be shocked to find out that the Warriors rank 3rd in defensive efficiency right now (the only team in the Top 3 of both offensive and defensive efficiency). And this newfound defensive prowess paying dividends at the betting window, as Golden State has gone ‘under’ the total in seven straight games, and 13 of its last 17.
This week, the Warriors host Utah, before embarking to Brooklyn, Detroit and Cleveland. That meeting at Cleveland will be a heated affair, as it will be the first team the two rivals will have met since their epic 7-game series last June.
Not surprisingly, given their intense nature, rematches from Playoff Series have gone ‘under’ the total more often than not. Last season’s Christmas Day meeting between these two teams easily sailed ‘under’ the total by 35 points, with the Warriors winning 89-83. And 11 of the 15 rematches since 2001 between NBA Finalists have gone ‘under,’ including five of six when the O/U line was greater than 193 points.
The Houston Rockets are on fire, as they’re riding a 10-game win streak. Houston’s now 21-7 this season, a feat made even more impressive by something I touched upon in this column last week — the Rockets have played the most difficult schedule in the league, thus far (14 of their first 20 games were on the road). Notwithstanding that initial obstacle, the Rockets currently have a margin of victory of +7.3, which ranks 5th in the league, ahead of such teams like San Antonio (+6.3) and Utah (+5.6).
This week, the Rockets will host their South Texas rival, on Tuesday, before hitting the road to play the Suns and Grizzlies. Houston already defeated the Spurs in San Antonio, so don’t be surprised if the Spurs return the favor, and upset Houston at the Toyota Center. For technical support, consider that the Spurs are 47-25 ATS on the road when playing with revenge from a home loss, including 32-12 ATS vs. a foe off a win.
The Los Angeles Clippers are 20-8, and have the league’s 3rd best margin of victory (+8.0). Many thought this might be the year when the star-crossed franchise would finally put it together to make a run at the NBA Finals.
But sobering news arrived this past weekend when it was learned that forward Blake Griffin will have minor surgery on his right knee. He’ll be out until mid-January, at the least. And in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, that will no doubt doom Los Angeles to eventually finish behind the Spurs (22-5) and Rockets (21-7) in the Playoff seeding, if not also Utah (18-10).
Admittedly, the Clippers did better than expected last year when Griffin was sidelined. But this is a different season, and Los Angeles has already started to significantly lose against the spread, as it’s 4-13 ATS its last 17 games.
This week, the Clippers will host Denver, San Antonio and Dallas, before playing the Lakers. The game on Thursday vs. the Spurs will be critical for Los Angeles’ psyche, but the advantage must go to revenge-minded San Antonio (see our paragraph above), given that the Clippers gave San Antonio its worst loss (116-92) this season, and worst home loss since March 8, 2013 when the Trail Blazers blew them out, 136-106.
Good luck, as always…Al McMordie.
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