- While the Celtics are still figuring out how to distribute scoring opportunities among their many stars, OKC knows what it wants to do: Give the ball to Russell Westbrook.
Here are our three best bets for Thursday night in the NBA:
1. Portland Trail Blazers at Orlando Magic (+3.5)
7:00 pm ET
It’s no secret that we’re higher on the Blazers than most this season, but this is a tough spot for Portland. After a three-game homestand, the Blazers now have to head out on a four-game road trip. Portland appears to be getting Orlando at the worst time, as the Magic are brimming with confidence after upsetting the Celtics on Tuesday, and they’ll be amped up for this home game against what is an excellent Western Conference team year in and year out. One trend to keep an eye on: Magic head coach Steve Clifford’s teams are 20-5 against the spread when facing teams that force 12 or fewer turnovers per game in his coaching career.
Orlando’s style of play should also drive Portland nuts tonight. The Blazers are sixth in the league in pace of play this season, but only four teams play slower than the Magic. By grinding out a few more possessions, Orlando will be able to make both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum a little uncomfortable. The Magic have the ability to keep this game close and are more than capable of winning outright.
Pick: Magic (+3.5)
2. Boston Celtics at Oklahoma City Thunder (+1.0)
8:00 pm ET
Yes, the Celtics are the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals and the Thunder are 0-3 to start the season. So what? Boston has looked extremely vulnerable early on, and the atmosphere at Chesapeake Energy Arena should be electric on Thursday night. The Celtics might be the league’s best team defensively so far, but the offense is lagging behind significantly. With loads of talent at his disposal, mastermind Brad Stevens is still figuring out how to feed all of the mouths on Boston’s roster. That process will likely take a few weeks or months, not merely days. Meanwhile, the Thunder have everybody but Andre Roberson available tonight. That absence is a major hit to the team’s defense, but Oklahoma City at least has superstar Russell Westbrook ready to go. Despite not having the preseason to get a few games under his belt, Westbrook had 32 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in his season debut. He did make only one of six three-pointers and five of 11 from the line, but that likely had a lot to do with the nerves of playing in a game after such a long layoff. He’ll be more comfortable this time around.
Oklahoma City also figures to approach this one with urgency, as the Thunder do not want to fall to 0-4 in what will be a grueling Western Conference regular season. Look for Steven Adams to be an X-factor, as he’s not the type of player that will be pushed around on the inside—especially with Boston bruiser Aron Baynes out of the lineup with a strained hamstring. Adams will be sound defensively and create a few extra opportunities with his elite offensive rebounding. Also, Paul George should be able to outplay Celtics phenom Jayson Tatum on the wing.
Pick: Thunder (+1.0)
3. Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers (+3)
10:35 pm ET
After suffering three tough losses to start the season, the Lakers broke into the win column with a dominant 131-113 road win over the Phoenix Suns. Los Angeles shot 52% from the floor and had only eight turnovers, and the team also forced the Suns to commit 19 turnovers. It was exactly the type of performance that the Lakers needed after head coach Luke Walton called out his team’s defensive effort to start the season.
Los Angeles now hosts an undefeated Denver team that is due for a loss. The Nuggets are clearly a very good team—they’re first in the league in defensive efficiency rating, yet are still in the top half of the league in offensive efficiency rating—but it’s hard to imagine them going into Los Angeles and beating a hungry LeBron James-led team. LeBron is averaging 25.3 points per game, 8.8 assists per game and 8.0 rebounds per game, but he is shooting only 45.6% from the field and 16.7% from three. Those numbers will see a positive regression very shortly, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it began tonight. LeBron has historically played very well against Paul Millsap in his career, and that’s who will be guarding him for a majority of this contest.
Another player that should make a difference in this game is Lonzo Ball, who is quietly shooting 40.9% from three through four games. It’s obviously early, but Ball has flashed an improved stroke and is looking a lot more confident in his second year in the league. With his ability to defend, he should help the Lakers a ton against the talented backcourt of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. It’s also worth noting that Los Angeles is 3-1 both straight up and against the spread when hosting Denver over the past three seasons. Combine that with the fact that Walton's Lakers were 13-4 ATS when coming off a win by 10 or more points last season, Los Angeles looks like a great value tonight.
Pick: Lakers (+3)