Non-conference action in the NBA on Sunday and all of a sudden this has become a very important game for the Boston Celtics. Boston has been is dismal form of late and is at risk of being shuffled back in the Eastern Conference field. They’re currently in 5th place and while it’s doubtful that they could fall even further (they have a 7 game lead on co-6th place teams Detroit and Brooklyn) they could lose sight of the four teams ahead of them. That would be a profound disappointment after a second place finish in the Eastern Conference last year.
Entering Sunday’s action, Boston is 10 games back of first place Milwaukee and 8 back of second place Toronto. That’s not a huge deal since every other team in the conference is looking up at the Bucks and Raptors. The problem is that they’re 2.5 games back of third place Indiana and 2 back of 4th place Philadelphia. Bigger problem–both teams are playing better basketball than the Celtics. In fact, the Celtics and Brooklyn Nets are the only teams currently playoff qualified in the East with a losing record in their last 10 games.
It’s tough to say exactly what is wrong with the Celtics but something is definitely amiss. Danny Ainge is having to defend head coach Brad Stevens in the media–and when a GM feels compelled to defend a coach that has gone 194-115 over the past three years plus there’s a problem. Some have suggested that the Celtics chemistry–or more specifically lack thereof–is the issue. Boston is coming off a much needed win/cover over the Washington Wizards at home on Friday night but they’re entering a schedule sequence with a lot of road games against the Western Conference. They’ll play four games in California coming up and they’re 10-12 SU/11-18-1 ATS against the Western Conference this year. They’ve been even worse against the Pacific Division going 1-4 SU/0-5 ATS. A crucial West Coast swing isn’t the setting to fix chemistry issues.
Houston comes in off a four game SU winning streak but covered just one of those games. They’ve gone 6-13-1 ATS since the first of the year and that type of ATS record suggests a couple of things–1) that there might be problems bubbling below the surface and 2) they’re definitely ‘overvalued’ relative to the pointspread. The Rockets don’t really have an especially strong ATS situation but this definitely isn’t it. They’re 11-9-1 ATS on the road this season and 8-14-1 against the Eastern Conference. They’re also 15-19-2 ATS after a straight up win.
The Western Conference standings at this point are Golden State and Denver pulling away from everyone else. Houston is currently in 5th place and trail the teams tied for 3rd and 4th (Portland and Oklahoma City) by only one game. On the other hand, they lead 6th place Utah by one game and the final two playoff qualified teams in the West (San Antonio and the Clippers) by 3 games. None of the Western Conference also rans are in particularly good form at the moment but with teams having 20 games (more or less) remaining one could go on a string run to finish the season. In other words, Houston is in decent playoff shape now but it could become tenuous very quickly.
An important component of sports handicapping in general and NBA handicapping in particular is determining which team ‘needs’ a game more. In this case, it’s clearly Boston who wants to get their house in order to some extent before they hit the road. Houston enters this contest feeling pretty good about themselves winning 4 straight and 5 of their last 7 SU but their poor ATS records suggests that they could be due for a poor performance. Houston has a banged up backcourt–Eric Gordon has been upgraded to ‘probable’ but Gerald Green is ‘questionable’ and Iman Sumpert has been downgraded to ‘doubtful’. Rockets have a bigger game against Toronto on deck for Tuesday. Boston is still an extremely talented, well coached side and this looks like a good spot for them to win and cover.