The longer the NBA's In-Season Tournament goes on, the clearer it's becoming that teams are taking these games more seriously than their typical regular-season counterparts. The Lakers and Magic left key players on the floor late in blowouts in order to pad their point-differentials. Virtually every member of the Lakers has commented on the prize money at this point. The Pacers and Hawks gave us what will likely be the game of the year on Tuesday, and Indiana's win clinched Group A in the Eastern Conference.
Some teams are closer to Vegas than others. Not everybody is going to treat these as do-or-die games. But the Lakers want that prize money. Tyrese Haliburton has never played on TNT, and that is about to change in the knockout stage. Real stakes have started to present themselves. Whether it's the cash prize or the opportunity for recognition or simply a young team playing its first playoff-level intensity games, the tournament has thus far been exactly what the league hoped for. So as we dive into tonight's slate with most of the league still eligible to advance, remember that players and teams are starting to treat these games with some added level of significance. This isn't an ordinary regular-season night anymore.
Boston Celtics at Orlando Magic
There's some notable recent history here. Boston beat Orlando 10 times in a row between January 2020 and October 2022, but the Magic turned around and won the last three games against the Celtics last season. They held Boston to an average of 99.7 points in those three games. Boston's offense relies on spacing and individual shot-creation rather than ball-movement, but Orlando's defense is so long and so mobile that it poses real problems for Boston. The pick: Magic +5
The Suns are scoring a preposterous 132.3 points per 100 possessions with Devin Booker and Kevin Durant on the floor together so far this season, according to Cleaning the Glass. Bradley Beal may still be out, but Booker and Durant are already dominating at a level offensively that this hapless Grizzlies offense can't hope to match. Memphis just won't be able to score enough to keep up against the Suns. The pick: Suns -7
Injuries are a major question mark here, and I'd probably wait until there's confirmation on whether Duncan Robinson and Bam Adebayo will play before placing a bet here. But the Heat are now 6-1 since Tyler Herro got hurt. We saw what the Herro-less Heat do to the Knicks in the playoffs last spring. Miami is one of the few teams in basketball that the Knicks can't bully physically, so if I can get points with the Heat, I'm usually going to take them. The pick: Heat +5.5
The Raptors are an amazingly random team. They've beaten the Timberwolves and lost to the Trail Blazers. Few teams are less consistent on a night-to-night basis, but the Bulls are just consistently bad at this point. They've won three games in November, but two have come against the tanking Jazz and Pistons. Their 27th-ranked offense, which relies entirely on Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan to create shots, is about to run into one of the NBA's best group of perimeter defenders. I just can't reasonably expect the Bulls to score enough to win here. The pick: Raptors -5
This one could go either way. The Rockets won the last matchup between these two teams, which was also in Houston. And the Nuggets, always a bit shaky on the road, are 2-4 in their last six. But the last time Nikola Jokic faced Houston, he put up 36 points, 21 rebounds and 11 assists. Alperen Sengun has no chance against Jokic whatsoever. If Denver had gotten more than eight points out of its bench, the Nuggets likely wouldn't have been handed that 107-104 loss on Nov. 12. Instead, Denver was outscored by 15 points in the 10 minutes Jokic sat out. Denver's bench is bad, but not that bad, so I'm leaning towards the Nuggets. The pick: Nuggets -3
The Bucks are 12-2 against the Wizards in the past five seasons, but have only covered a 13.5-point spread in two of those wins, one of which was by exactly 14 points. The Bucks are going to be able to score at will against the Wizards, but Washington should do plenty of scoring as well. The last game these teams played had a 142-129 final, so expect plenty of fireworks in this game as well. The pick: Wizards +13.5
Detroit Pistons at Indiana Pacers
Indiana's league-worst defense couldn't ask for a better "get right" opponent than the Pistons. Detroit has scored only 108.4 points per 100 possession during this 12-game losing streak, and since the Pistons typically start no consistent 3-point shooters, the Pacers can afford to send more help to the rim, where they allow more shot attempts than any other team in the league. If you have any faith whatsoever in Indiana's defense crawling out of the basement, this is the game to show it. The pick: Pacers -8.5
Sacramento Kings at Minnesota Timberwolves
If Jaden McDaniels were healthy, Minnesota might be the pick. But he's out, and while Anthony Edwards is capable of guarding De'Aaron Fox, asking him to do so for most of the game is a bit unreasonable given his offensive responsibilities. Fox averaged just under 29 points per game against Minnesota last season despite shooting just 21.1% on 3s in those four games. His combination of speed and craft in floater range poses real problems for Rudy Gobert, and Fox has been far better this season. The pick: Kings +3.5
Vegas still hasn't caught up to just how bad the Spurs are yet. Their minus-13.2 net rating would be the worst figure any team has posted since the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats went minus-15. Reminder: that Bobcats team finished 7-59. San Antonio is going to keep getting public money because of Victor Wembanyama, but they don't deserve it. Until lines start reflecting their actual performance, you should feel comfortable going against them. The pick: Warriors -10.5
Here's an amazing stat. Right now, neither Paul George nor Kawhi Leonard are listed on the injury report. That would put them in line to play their 14th consecutive game together, which would be a new high for the duo. It's odd to think that the Clippers are developing some continuity less than a month after a blockbuster trade and less than a week after finding their new backup center, but those two wins over the Spurs helped the Clippers right the ship a little bit. They have a ways to go, but things are already looking far cleaner than they were early in the James Harden era. The pick: Clippers -6