The NBA All-Star Weekend is behind us which means the real playoff battle begins with around 27 games for each contender.
We’ll see another super exciting race in the Western Conference even though the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies are four games ahead of their closest rivals. Many believe that the Grizzlies will have to go awry down the stretch, while Portland, San Antonio, New Orleans, and Phoenix are all expected to make one final playoff push.
So, we bring you three teams that will bring some value in the final two months of the season.
Portland Trail Blazers (25-31; 23-31-2 ATS)
After reaching the Western Conference Finals last season, the Trail Blazers had high hopes for 2020. At the moment, they are No. 9 seed in the West, four games behind the fourth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, so the Trail Blazers have to start winning games in sequences immediately. Unfortunately, Damian Lillard will miss a few weeks due to a groin strain, and he’s been tallying 34.7 points and 9.5 assists over his last ten outings.
The Trail Blazers desperately need help, and Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins are nowhere near returning to the floor. It means C.J. McCollum will run the Trail Blazers’ offense, while Hassan Whiteside and Carmelo Anthony will shoulder a lot of the offensive load, too. Still, their D is a big issue, as the Trail Blazers surrender the fourth-most points per 100 possessions (113.8) and are 26th in the league in opponent 3-point percentage.
Despite all downsides, the Trail Blazers are an interesting team to watch down the stretch, especially if Damian Lillard returns soon. With healthy Lillard, the Trail Blazers will be capable to improve their record. Also, 15 of their next 26 games are against the losing teams. On the other hand, there’s a plan B in case that Lillard remains sidelined longer than it’s expected. The Trail Blazers could easily fall apart without their best player, and considering their awful defense, they will struggle to cover.
New Orleans Pelicans (23-32; 28-25-2 ATS)
As well as the Trail Blazers, the Pelicans want to sneak into the playoffs. They are 5.5 games behind the No. 8 seed, but the Pelicans hope they are the best team in the playoff race. New Orleans is 17-10 straight up and 18-7-2 ATS over its last 27 games, while the Pelicans score 115.3 points per 100 possessions over their last 15 outings, enough for the seventh-best in the NBA.
With Zion Williamson in the lineup, the Pelicans are so dangerous offensively. Still, they need healthy Brandon Ingram, too. New Orleans has a +7.3 net rating with both Zion and Ingram on the floor. So, if they stay healthy, look after the Pelicans down the stretch. They will meet the Grizzlies twice, while 18 of their next 27 games are against a team with a losing record.
Therefore, I really like the Pelicans’ spot. They’ve improved a lot over the last two months, building up their form and confidence, while the strength of schedule seems pretty promising. I see them as the Grizzlies’ toughest rivals for the No. 8 seed in the West.
Oklahoma City Thunder (33-22; 36-19 ATS)
The Thunder have been playing above all expectations and are tied with the Mavericks for the sixth seed in the West at the moment. They’ve been completely ridiculous against the spread and are leading the league ahead of Boston, Milwaukee, and Toronto. That tells a lot about the Thunder’s performance, but the big question is will they keep the same pace down the stretch?
If you want a better look at how ridiculous they’ve been, here’s the list to make it clear:
- 21-5 ATS in 26 road contests
- 23-8 ATS in 31 showings as underdogs
- 6-1 ATS in the last seven games against division foes
- 20-8 ATS in the last 28 games against the Western Conference
The Thunder are playing like a real team, one for all and all for one. Chris Paul (17.4 PPG, 6.7 APG) is their biggest star, but CP3 is a 15-year veteran who’s been dismissed by the Rockets last summer. Sophomore guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (19.5 PPG, 6.1 RPG) enjoys a wonderful season, while Dennis Schroder and Danilo Gallinari both average 19.3 points per game.
Head coach Billy Donovan is doing a great job, and there’s no arguing about that. Keep in mind he’s led the Florida Gators to two straight championships. Since John Wooden’s UCLA, only Donovan and Mike Krzyzewski have won two national titles in a row. The Thunder certainly lacks depth with guys like Nerlens Noel, Hamidou Diallo, and Abdel Nader coming off the bench, but whoever takes the floor for the Thunder, knows his role in Billy Donovan’s system.
Another interesting thing is OKC’s strength of schedule. The Thunder will play the Knicks twice and will visit the Hawks and Pistons, but 14 of their next 27 games are against the team with a winning record along with a few more tricky matchups with playoff contenders. Even if they continue with upsetting the money line odds, I think the Thunder could easily struggle to cover above .500.