The NBA regular season is so nearly at its ending. A physical and mental 82-game marathon is about to finish for several teams, but a new, different challenge will begin for the top eight clubs in each conference.
Teams are battling for lottery odds just as much as playoff position. This week could influence how teams are set for the coming years, let alone the upcoming players and offseason. So, here we are. Some thoughts on the most interesting games of the week…
Wednesday, 12am: Toronto Raptors @ Cleveland Cavaliers
As things stand, this looks likely to be the Eastern Conference Finals matchup. The Raptors should retain the number one seed despite a little pressure from the Celtics, while LeBron James’ Cavaliers will likely hold onto the third spot.
The potential for seeding change makes this a game relevant in the short-term as well as being a precursor to the playoffs. Cleveland could yet relinquish that fourth spot to the Sixers, but are a team in form, having gone 8-2 over their last 10.
There have been signs that the Raptors are relaxing a little. They deserve to, of course, having overachieved all season to really take charge of the East post-Christmas. LeBron and an excitable Cleveland crowd should just force another win.
TIP: Cleveland Cavaliers to win @ 41/50
Wednesday, 1am: Golden State Warriors @ Oklahoma City Thunder
The reigning champions head to Oklahoma City locked into second in the West. The absence of Steph Curry is still casting a lengthy shadow over Steve Kerr’s side, but they remain favourites to win another title.
The hosting Thunder could, albeit with a bit of bad luck, still drop out of the playoffs altogether. This season has been disappointing, but OKC will still be a fearsome first round opponent for anyone. Russell Westbrook has calmed his three shooting and the Thunder are a much more effective offensive unit as a result.
I fancy the hosts, who have a solid 26-13 home record, to nick this one. The Warriors are in playoff preparation mode, meaning we could see fewer minutes from each of the three All-Stars.
TIP: Oklahoma City Thunder to win @ 12/25
Thursday, 2am: Philadelphia 76ers @ Detroit Pistons
Detroit’s season is a case of what might have been. The playoffs are only just out of their reach right now, thanks to those slip ups earlier in the season. The majority of their problems have been on the road, however, and they come into this week on a handy little five-game winning streak.
Philadelphia, though, are the hottest team in the league having won 10 straight. Even the injury to Joel Embiid couldn’t halt their momentum, as they look to creep into that three spot ahead of Cleveland. Ben Simmons has taken charge in Embiid’s absence. The Rookie of the Year favourite could do the same in this one.
The Sixers are a force at the moment. While we are deprived of Andre Drummond matching up with Embiid, this is still a game the visitors will like their chances in.
TIP: Philadelphia 76ers to win @ 8/13
Friday, 1am: Portland Trail Blazers @ Houston Rockets
Portland are destined for the three seed. Houston are locked into the one seed. This game, as a result, is meaningless for the regular season, but could be significant as the pair get themselves ready for potentially deep runs into the postseason.
Mike D’Antoni has been clear that he favours rhythm over rest in the build-up to the first round. We may still see Chris Paul – who is nursing a knock – and James Harden sit a few extra minutes, but the Rockets are keen to maintain the routine that has seen them lose just 15 games in the regular season.
The Trail Blazers could see this as an opportunity to rest Dame Lillard and CJ McCollum, too. This game might have a bit of an exhibition feel to it, but I think the Rockets will finish strong.
TIP: Houston Rockets to win
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*