Who’s ready for the stretch run of the NBA season?
The All-Star break has come and gone, and there are nine games on tap Thursday night as the NBA schedule resumes. That group of games is headlined by Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies heading out on the road to face Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Sixers are 3.5-point favorites over the Grizzlies at BetMGM with the total listed at 229.5.
Philly won four straight entering the break and sits at 38-19 overall, three games behind the Boston Celtics for first place in the Eastern Conference standings (and a half-game behind the Milwaukee Bucks). Embiid has been playing at an MVP level once again, but are the Sixers equipped to make a run at the Celtics in the East?
With Embiid and James Harden leading the way, Philly has shown the ability to beat just about anybody in the NBA. But the Sixers also tend to have some really head-scratching performances. That will happen over the course of an 82-game season, but those issues have surfaced in the postseason in years past.
The Sixers have not advanced to the Eastern Conference finals since 2001 and have lost in the East semifinals in four of the past five seasons. Could this be the year those fortunes change? Oddsmakers seem skeptical.
The Celtics and Bucks are the favorites to emerge from the East, listed at +115 and +185, respectively. The Sixers are +550 to win the East and +850 to edge out the Celtics in the Atlantic Division.
The Grizzlies, meanwhile, are 35-22 and in second place in the West, five games behind the Denver Nuggets. The Grizzlies — who are +750 to win the West — have struggled over the last month, enduring a stretch where they lost eight of nine games. However, they won three of four before the break and are looking to keep that going to start the second half.
A big reason for the team’s recent decline is the absence of bruising big man Steven Adams. Adams is slated to return to the floor soon, but not soon enough to match him up against Embiid.
What else is going on in the NBA?
There are quite a few intriguing matchups elsewhere on the schedule Thursday.
The first-place Nuggets are 2.5-point road underdogs against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who won eight of 10 entering the break.
Behind the Nuggets and Grizzlies, the Western Conference is a jumbled mess. Seeds No. 3 through 12 are within 4.5 games of one another in the standings. Most of those teams are in action on Thursday.
The New Orleans Pelicans are 5.5-point underdogs in Toronto, the Dallas Mavericks are 14.5-point home favorites over the San Antonio Spurs, the Utah Jazz are favored by 1.5 points at home over the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Sacramento Kings are 6.5-point home favorites over the Portland Trail Blazers.
Oh, and there’s also a showdown between the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers. Steph Curry is still out with a leg injury, so the Lakers are listed as 5.5-point favorites at BetMGM.
Plenty of bubble teams in action in college hoops
We’re inching closer to Selection Sunday and several teams on the NCAA tournament bubble are playing on Thursday night.
Most bracket prognosticators have at least eight Big Ten teams comfortably in the field of 68, but a few more are in the hunt. Wisconsin is one of them, and the Badgers posted a double-digit victory over Iowa on Wednesday night.
Penn State, meanwhile, has a big opportunity on the road vs. Ohio State on Thursday. OSU has lost 13 of 14 but is favored by 2.5 points over the Nittany Lions.
The tournament possibilities for Michigan don’t look great, but the Wolverines have three Quad 1 opportunities in their final four regular-season games. That stretch begins with a road game at Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are favored by 5.5.
Two Big Ten teams that won’t have to sweat on Selection Sunday are also in action as Illinois hosts No. 21 Northwestern. The Wildcats have won five straight but are 5.5-point underdogs in Champaign.
In the Pac-12, USC has the chance to further solidify its case with two road chances in three days, beginning with Colorado. The Trojans, who have lost five of their last six road games, are 2.5-point underdogs vs. the Buffs.
The second road game for USC is vs. Utah on Saturday. Before that, the Utes host No. 4 UCLA on Thursday and are 7.5-point underdogs. Utah is 17-11 overall and 10-7 in Pac-12 play, but its resume lacks a marquee win. An upset here would certainly help.
Elsewhere, Memphis is favored by just 2.5 points on the road at Wichita State. The Tigers would be wise to avoid losing to anybody other than No. 1 Houston over their last four games of the regular season.
What’s the best bet?
I’m going to take Penn State +2.5 at Ohio State.
Big Ten home teams have been very good to bettors this season, but Ohio State hasn’t been one of them. The Buckeyes are 2-14 ATS in Big Ten play and just 5-8 ATS at home this season. They’ve been a favorite in all 13 home games they’ve played even as they continue to lose.
Penn State probably needs to win three of four down the stretch if it wants to get to the NCAA tournament. Jalen Pickett has been playing like an All-American for PSU. And with Zed Key sidelined for OSU, PSU’s lack of interior defense won’t be as costly as it’s been in other games. OSU is in free fall and playing a mix of freshmen and journeymen transfers. It’s not a good mix.
I think PSU wins outright, but I’ll take the 2.5 points.