Back in action with predictions on the always-unpredictable NBA

Photo by Getty Images | The "graybearded" Celtics have shown they can still run with the league's young guns.

Photo by Getty Images | The “graybearded” Celtics have shown they can still run with the league’s young guns.

Usually, it’s easier to forecast when Shaquille O’Neal will say something intelligible than it is to handicap NBA regular-season games. This season, though, was supposed to be different. With the lockout delaying tipoff until Christmas Day and David Stern’s greedy-and-grueling schedule of 65 games in four months, the road to riches was seemingly smooth: Back veteran squads early, younger squads late and, in the middle, patiently wait for opportunities to fade graybeards such as the Celtics and Spurs when they’re playing their third game in three nights.

Easy pickins, right? I mean, some 40 years after my dad first asked me “Do you think money grows on trees?” I was finally going to be able to answer, “As a matter of fact, yes!” Well, 3½ months into this truncated season, here’s what we’ve learned:

The Thunder, one of the league’s youngest teams, are sitting atop the Western Conference standings. No surprise there. Huge surprise: They’re barely holding off the Spurs, who recently had an 11-game winning streak snapped—only because coach Gregg Popovich rested his top three players (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker).

The ancient Celtics dropped eight of their first 12 games and were left for dead by everyone (including their general manager), only to find the fountain of youth after the All-Star break (thanks to a 17-7 run, Boston is leading the Atlantic Division).

The Bulls have the NBA’s best record, even though injuries have sidelined reigning MVP Derek Rose numerous times. (Rose recently missed 12 straight games, during which Chicago went 8-4. When he finally returned April 8, he scored 29 points against the Knicks … and the Bulls lost in overtime).

The Heat are right on Chicago’s heels in the Eastern Conference, even though superstar Dwyane Wade has missed 11 games with injuries (Miami’s record in those 11 games: 10-1 straight up, 7-4 against the spread).

The Lakers started the season 36-22 SU … and 23-35 ATS (including a current 2-13 ATS funk).

Speaking of the point-spread standings, fancy this: 24 of the league’s 30 teams entered the second week of April between six games over and six games under .500. So, um, yeah, apparently we’ll see LeBron James’ killer instinct before we’ll see a predictable NBA regular season.

Not that any of this will stop me from releasing a slew of NBA plays this week. Hey, it can’t turn out any worse than the NCAA tournament … can it? (Note: All point spreads are projected, and all stats are through April 9.)

$220 (to win $200) on Bobcats +7 vs. Celtics (April 15): Charlotte is an NBA-worst 7-48 SU and 21-34 ATS. The Bobcats have lost 12 in a row overall and seven in a row at home. And the Celtics, as previously mentioned, are rolling, not only on the court but also at the betting window (9-1-2 ATS run).

So how can I justify this as my best bet of the week? Because here’s Boston’s itinerary from April 10-15: at Miami, vs. Atlanta, off day, at Toronto, at New Jersey, at Charlotte. Six days, five games, five cities. Now, I don’t know the NBA rulebook by heart, but I don’t believe you’re allowed to play with oxygen tanks strapped to your back.

Given this is Boston’s most taxing stretch of the season, don’t be surprised if coach Doc Rivers pulls a Popovich and throws this game away.

$110 (to win $100) on Grizzlies -7½ vs. Jazz (April 14): Last week, the primate who took over this space touted Memphis as a dark-horse NBA title contender. Then the Grizzlies went out and made the monkey look like a genius, beating the Heat, Mavericks and Clippers in successive games. Since March 25, Memphis is 8-2 (7-3 ATS), including impressive road wins over the Lakers and Thunder. True, the Grizzlies are 0-2 against Utah this season, but in this contest the Jazz are in a back-to-back and three-games-in-four-nights spot, while Memphis is returning from an off day.

$88 (to win $80) on Hawks +5½ at Magic (April 13): This is just Atlanta’s fifth game this month (and second since April 7), so the Hawks should be fresh. Additionally, they’ve upset the Magic twice already this season; they’re on a 14-7-1 ATS roll (7-3-1 on the road); and Orlando has lost five of seven (including three of four at home). Oh, and Dwight Howard has a back injury (no doubt from having to carry his team, not to mention his massive ego).

BEST OF THE REST (April 13): Trail Blazers +3 vs. Mavericks ($55); Cavaliers-Pacers UNDER ($55); Rockets -4 vs. Suns ($44); Nets +6 vs. 76ers ($33). (April 14): Spurs -7 vs. Suns ($55); Pacers-Bucks OVER ($44). (April 15): Bulls -5½ vs. Pistons ($66); Knicks +3½ vs. Heat ($55).

BANKROLL: $4,720.

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