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Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Tennis Picks 2017 (February 28th)

Last week feels a long time ago when everything that could have gone wrong went wrong for the tennis picks.

I will admit it felt good taking a few days off and trying to clear the mind of the some of the negativity that had encompassed the picks, and myself, after some bad breaks over the course of the early part of the week. That has had a serious knock on the early season totals, but I am hoping that the time off helps me put a good week together before the Indian Wells and Miami Masters take place over March.

This week some of the biggest names on the ATP Tour are in action with ATP 500 events in Acapulco and Dubai taking place and Roger Federer was an early winner in Dubai. It is Federer, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka playing in Dubai this week, while Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal play in Acapulco so it is no surprise that some solid television coverage is in place for those events.

Fernando Verdasco - 3.5 games v Florian Mayer: After opening up in Doha coming within match points of beating Novak Djokovic, the last few weeks have been much tougher for Fernando Verdasco who has been beaten in some disappointing matches. The veteran Spaniard is more erratic these days than he was even a couple of years ago, but he faces another veteran in Florian Mayer in the First Round in Dubai and at least Verdasco has some wins under his belt in 2017.

For Mayer it has been four straight losses to open the new season and he was favoured to win at least two of those matches. That also means he is just 2-11 on the ATP Tour since winning the title in Halle last summer and his vulnerable serve has perhaps regressed a little more.

He is still an awkward player and he can frustrate someone like Verdasco who will be looking to hit through the court and might find the slightly slower courts in this year's edition of the Dubai tournament harder to hit through his German opponent. Mayer will use a lot of slicing and dicing to try and extract errors from Verdasco and he will get to the net and that makes him dangerous.

However I do wonder if all the losses have added up to a mental obstacle that might be too much for Mayer to overcome. It should be Verdasco who can earn a few more cheaper points from the serve and he has at least put some wins on the board which can make anyone feel better.

I can see Verdasco being a little too tough in both sets as he pulls through 6-4, 6-4.

Marius Copil v Jan-Lennard Struff: Yesterday saw Marius Copil reach a career high World Ranking and he is a player that is looking to progress a little further after coming through two Qualifiers to reach the main draw in Dubai. The win over Andreas Seppi was particularly impressive and this is the second ATP 500 event in row that Copil has Qualified for.

In Rotterdam he was drawn to face Tomas Berdych and Copil was beaten in a tight match, but what has been impressive is some of the serving stats he is producing. I expect that serve to cause Jan-Lennard Struff some problems in the First Round in Dubai and this is a match that Copil has to believe he can win.

First off Copil has a 3-1 head to head record against Struff and one of those wins came just a couple of weeks ago in the Rotterdam Qualifiers. The serve once again was dominant on the day as Copil won 76% of the points behind serve and that limited the chances Struff was able to generate while also meaning Copil could take advantage of the one or two sloppy service games that Struff is always likely to produce.

The return game is an issue for Copil in general, but he can build pressure with his own serve and that can play a part mentally in this kind of match. Struff did play well to reach the Final of a Challenger event in Canberra earlier in the season, but outside of that he is just 2-4 on the season.

Struff's record against Copil can play a part in this pick 'em First Round match and I am going to back the underdog Copil to come through.

Lucas Pouille - 4.5 games v Adam Pavlasek: One of the most improved players on the Tour Lucas Pouille is going to try and back up his run to the Final in Marseille last week by producing a big week in Dubai. The Ranking points available for Pouille should provide plenty of motivation, but it is always difficult to back up a big week on the Tour.

His opponent Adam Pavlasek holds a win over Pouille from a Challenger event on the clay courts from two seasons ago, but it is safe to say that Pouille has moved forward in his career and Pavlasek has stagnated.

This is only the second appearance of the season for Pavlasek and he had a really disappointing loss at the Australian Open. The lack of matches has to be a concern for him and Pouille should be good enough to take advantage of him here.

Earlier in the season Pouille looked like he was less than 100% but he didn't show any signs of his injury last week in Marseille. The Frenchman can be a little loose on his own service games, certainly more than I would like when asking him to cover a number like this, but Pouille should have just a little too much in most departments to turn things in his favour and win this match 6-3, 6-4.

Gerald Melzer - 1.5 games v Victor Estrella Burgos: Some tournaments seem to suit players to such an extent that it is hard to really put your finger on it. That is how I feel when thinking about Quito and the fact that Victor Estrella Burgos has won that tournament three times in a row and really produced his very best tennis there.

Take away the wins he has had in Quito and Estrella Burgos is just 10-13 on the clay courts in ATP tournaments although he won't be facing someone who spends a lot of time at this level himself.

However I do think Gerald Melzer has been putting up a few more wins than Estrella Burgos which can give the Austrian the edge when these players meet in the First Round in Sao Paulo. Melzer didn't play last week in Rio De Janeiro during this Golden Swing in South America, but he did have a couple of decent wins in Buenos Aires prior to that.

His World Ranking has slipped back outside the top 100 so this is an important week for Melzer if he wants to be in a position to play some of the big tournaments coming up in the clay court season in Europe. He has produced enough wins on the Challenger circuit to have the belief he can get the better of Estrella Burgos and I do think he can win this one in three sets.

Expect breaks of serve and expect both players to have their moments, but I think Melzer will work his way through to a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 win.

Dusan Lajovic - 2.5 games v Facundo Bagnis: I will admit that I am surprised to be writing that Facundo Bagnis is the higher Ranked player of these two and that Dusan Lajovic is actually outside the top 100 in the World Rankings. I certainly think the Serbian has a bit more than that about his game and I think he can frank his win over Bagnis from Rio De Janeiro last week.

These two players met in the First Round there and it was a close match with both having their opportunities to break serve. However Lajovic was just a little too good at the big moments which helped him come through in straight sets and I do think he can do something similar this week.

Bagnis has to be respected for some very good performances in Challenger events on the clay courts at the back end of 2016 which saw him win plenty of matches. He also won two titles in the last couple of months of the season, but the Argentinian has lost all five matches played in 2017 and that might lead to some doubts creeping into the mind when the big points are about to be played.

It does have to be noted that Lajovic hasn't exactly been winning a lot of matches himself, but he didn't play badly in Rio De Janeiro last week and that should give him some confidence. His defeat to Dominic Thiem in the Second Round looked relatively straight-forward, but Lajovic showed some heart in the second set against a clearly superior player and he is not facing someone of Thiem's level in this First Round.

This might be a little tougher than last week, but I do think Lajovic can come through with a 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 win.

Carlos Berlocq - 2.5 games v Thiago Monteiro: I am a little surprised that Carlos Berlocq is not being asked to cover at least one game more in this First Round match against Thiago Monteiro. It might have something to do with the fact that Monteiro reached the Quarter Final last week in Rio De Janeiro and he did the same here in Sao Paulo twelve months ago.

Playing in front of his home support is obviously going to be a bonus for Monteiro who is looking for a revenge win against Berlocq who used the home crowd to come from a set down to beat Monteiro in Buenos Aires two weeks ago.

That tournament in Buenos Aires was a good one for Berlocq who was beaten early last week in Rio De Janeiro. He is still an irritating player to go up against so Monteiro will be good for the experience of facing Berlocq just two weeks ago, but he has to overcome a bit of tiredness having had two solid runs on the clay courts in back to back tournaments.

I expect a tight match between these two, but I also thought it was the kind of match that Berlocq can come through with a 6-4, 6-4 kind of margin of win. There is a lot to like about the Monteiro game which comes with a lot of power and heavy groundstrokes, but I think Berlocq forces enough errors to pull away from him and earn a solid win.

Thomaz Bellucci v Diego Sebastian Schwartzman: There are a few matches in Sao Paulo where I have been a little surprised by the oddsmakers and this is another one that stands out. I would have had Thomaz Bellucci has a favourite to beat Diego Sebastian Schwartzman, but the Brazilian actually is on the other side of the pick 'em prices and I want to back him to come through with a win.

It does have to be noted that Bellucci has not won a match in Sao Paulo since reaching the Semi Final here in 2014, and he did lose a match last week in Rio De Janeiro to Thiago Monteiro despite winning more points. The left-hander is still a little too loose with his shot execution at big moments and that cost him against Monteiro, but I do think he has the bigger serve than Schwartzman and getting into rallies should give him a chance to break down the Argentinian.

Schwartzman is a very competent clay court player and he showed that by winning the ATP Istanbul title last year and adding two Challenger titles to that haul. He has played well over the last couple of weeks on the clay courts too which will only build his confidence, but Schwartzman is always going to have to work hard to win his points and Bellucci at his best should be too good for him.

Finding Bellucci on his best days has become a rare occurrence though and the steadiness of Schwartzman has to be respected. He has some impressive wins over the last two weeks, but I think the underdog can win this one with Bellucci's heavier shots able to force Schwartzman backwards on the clay courts.

A good serving day will be required, but Bellucci was pretty handy behind serve last week and I think he comes through in three tough sets.

Monica Puig - 5.5 games v Francesca Schiavone: You have to think Francesca Schiavone loves tennis to still be fighting her way through what is a long season at the ripe old age of 36. She isn't the player she was though and Schiavone has lost all three main draw matches she has played while going 1-1 in Fed Cup duty for Italy in 2017.

She is still someone who can produce some of her better tennis on the clay courts where her movement is not as exposed, but this tournament is on the hard courts and she is just 7-17 on the hard courts in main draw matches since the start of the 2015 season. Schiavone's defensive skills and serve are vulnerable on this surface and someone like Monica Puig hits the ball hard enough to penetrate those defences.

The losses that Schiavone has suffered have come in fairly one-sided fashion and I think she is going to struggle to stay with Puig who had a couple of decent weeks in the Middle East.

I will say that Puig is a hard player to trust because her style of play can see her make a number of unforced errors that can bring her opponent back into the match. However I think this is a big difference in quality that both Puig and Schiavone bring to the court at this stage of their careers and I think Puig beats the Italian fairly comfortably for the third time in their professional matches.

It's a big number, but Puig can win this one 6-3, 6-3 and I will look for her to cover.

Taylor Townsend + 2.5 games v Jennifer Brady: Two young American players have come through two Qualifiers to reach the main draw in Acapulco and you have to think both Jennifer Brady and Taylor Townsend have full belief they can win this First Round match.

I will be honest and say I was going to quickly move past this match as I was expecting Townsend to be the favourite and asked to cover 2.5 games. In what is likely to be a very close match, I thought she may just edge that number, but I was not interested in backing her to do so with every chance of this going right down to the wire.

Imagine my surprise to then note that Townsend is the underdog and in receipt of that many games and I do think the oddsmakers may have got this one wrong. The Brady run to the Fourth Round at the Australian Open has to play a part in the price, especially as she beat Townsend in the Qualifiers there, but Brady certainly rode her luck to move through a couple of matches at Melbourne Park.

Townsend won more points against the serve on that day, but it was only her 2/13 break point conversions compared with Brady going 2/2 that separated them on the day. I will say that Brady has won two matches in the Qualifiers here much more comfortably than Townsend, but I like the latter with the games here to keep this one close and perhaps even convert the upset.

Sam Querrey - 1.5 games v Kyle Edmund: There are a lot of high hopes for Kyle Edmund in Great Britain as the gap behind Andy Murray is being filled by a couple of players who are overachieving. Edmund is not overachieving, but I am not sure he is going to be as good as so many of the experts think.

Don't get me wrong though, Edmund has produced some big performances in his career, but he is also never far away from the disappointing losses. While he played really well for long parts of his defeat against Milos Raonic last week, Edmund has also been beaten by Vasek Pospisil, Matthew Barton and Pablo Carreno Busta on the hard courts this season.

Sam Querrey isn't the best player on the Tour, but can be tough to beat when he is serving very well. I am not sure if Edmund has an issue playing big servers- he has beaten John Isner at the US Open, but he lost to the American at the French Open and losses to Franko Skugor, Pospisil and Raonic over the last twelve months can be added to his two losses to Querrey in his career to raise some questions.

The American has hardly been pulling up trees in his matches to open 2017, but if he serves well he can build the pressure on Edmund who is still throwing in too many sloppy games. I like the chances of Querrey wearing down Edmund over the course of a couple of hours on the court and I think he will serve his way through to a 7-6, 6-4 win over the British player.

Novak Djokovic - 5.5 games v Martin Klizan: This tournament is going to be where Novak Djokovic returns to the Tour after playing Davis Cup for Serbia following a surprise loss at the Australian Open. Most will be surprised he has picked Acapulco rather than Dubai, where Djokovic usually plays, but you can't really question the former World Number 1 who has been so successful over the last few seasons.

The question for Djokovic is how far away he is from feeling like he is back to his best and this is a tough field to negotiate as most ATP 500 events will be. His opening match comes against Martin Klizan and I think Djokovic will hold the mental edge which will see him break down a player who is prone to capitulations.

Their two previous matches have been won by Djokovic with relative comfort and he has lost just 4 games in 4 sets played outside of one that Klizan won 7-5. They haven't played for a couple of seasons and while Djokovic may have just slipped a little bit, Klizan has been erratic in that time.

It should be noted that Djokovic has only covered this number in 4 of his last 16 best of three set matches and that makes it dangerous to pick him to do that here. However I think he will be helped by Klizan who plays a game with little margin for error and that can see him implode in matches.

I think Djokovic will win a tight first set, but will then be too good in the second as Klizan mentally loses focus and that should lead to a 7-5, 6-2 win for the Number 1 Seed here.

Nick Kyrgios - 4.5 games v Dudi Sela: I am wary backing Nick Kyrgios, despite being a big fan, because I simply don't know what kind of mindset he is going to enter the court in. There is so much talent that Kyrgios possesses, but if it is not right upstairs, he is never far away from a disappointing performance where his desire can be lacking.

On paper he should have far too much power and ability for Dudi Sela to deal with as the Israeli has a vulnerable serve and clearly doesn't hit the ball as hard as Kyrgios can.

He also retired with an injury last week in Delray Beach and hasn't had a lot of time to recover for this one. If Sela is feeling less than 100%, his chances of winning this match slip even further and I think Kyrgios has had enough time to head over to Acapulco from Marseille and get ready for this event.

The bigger serve should see Kyrgios come through his service games a little more comfortably than Sela and I think the Australian will move through to the Second Round. This is the kind of match Kyrgios should be winning 6-4, 6-3 and I think he will do enough to do that.

Jack Sock - 4.5 games v Yoshihito Nishioka: Jack Sock won his second title of the 2017 season and his decision to reduce some of his Doubles schedule looks to have paid off for him. The second title was won on Sunday in Delray Beach, although Sock benefited from Milos Raonic withdrawing after the Semi Final victories for both players, and Sock will be looking to back up a big week here in Acapulco.

Sock is playing Doubles with Nick Kyrgios this week, but the Singles tournament is clearly the focus as he looks to keep some momentum behind him before the back to back Masters tournaments in the United States which begin next week. The American has been playing well with some big serving helping him along the way, although Sock will be the first to admit he needs to be a little better in return games and also improve the backhand wing.

This won't be an easy match for Sock when he faces Yoshihito Nishioka who has plenty of backers believing he could be amongst the best players in a couple of years time. He does need to find some consistency, but Nishioka will be respected having beaten the Memphis Champion Ryan Harrison in the Qualifiers and snapping his run of 10 consecutive wins since his exit at the Australian Open.

However Nishioka has found John Isner and Steve Johnson too good over the last couple of weeks and he will have to serve better than he did in those matches if he is going to beat Sock. The loss to Johnson, and the manner of the loss, was disappointing for Nishioka who would have expected to be more competitive and I do feel the match up with Sock is another step up from the likes of Johnson and Isner.

A lot of this match depends on Sock, but he has had a few days to physically get ready for the ATP 500 event in Acapulco and I think he comes through this First Round match with a 6-3, 6-4 win.

Dominic Thiem - 2.5 games v Gilles Simon: Dominic Thiem's Coach finally took some responsibility for the awful schedule he has put together for a player that could be a real force on the Tour in the coming years ahead. Moving from the indoor hard courts to an outdoor clay tournament to an outdoor hard court tournament is not exactly ideal, but Thiem continues to deal with what is put in front of him effectively.

The move from the clay courts back to the hard courts is usually one that players can make but it can take a spot of time to get used to the slightly different feel you will have. Thiem won the tournament in Rio De Janeiro last week which means he has had less time to prepare, but at least he is playing someone who made a long journey from Europe for this event.

That doesn't make it too much easier when facing an opponent like Gilles Simon who will look to keep players out on court for as long as possible in a bid to mentally and physically wear them down. However Thiem played, and beat, Simon a couple of weeks in Rotterdam so he should be well prepared with what he is going to face here.

Thiem has won three in a row against Simon now and he is also 3-1 in their matches on either an indoor or outdoor hard court. I do think Thiem has the patience and the power to break down the Simon game which is very much about his defensive ability around the court, but I do think Thiem will be too strong for him.

It might take a bit of time to get used to the new conditions this week and the new surface, but Thiem is usually strong early in the season and I think he comes through this tough match with a 7-6, 6-4 win.

MY PICKS: Fernando Verdasco - 3.5 Games @ 1.91 Coral (2 Units)
Marius Copil @ 2.10 Boyle Sports (2 Units)
Lucas Pouille - 4.5 Games @ 2.00 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Gerald Melzer - 1.5 Games @ 2.00 Coral (2 Units)
Dusan Lajovic - 2.5 Games @ 1.91 Bet Fred (2 Units)
Carlos Berlocq - 2.5 Games @ 2.00 Bet Fred (2 Units)
Thomaz Bellucci @ 2.05 Stan James (2 Units)
Monica Puig - 5.5 Games @ 1.91 William Hill (2 Units)
Taylor Townsend + 2.5 Games @ 1.91 Bet Fred (2 Units)
Sam Querrey - 1.5 Games @ 2.10 Coral (2 Units)
Novak Djokovic - 5.5 Games @ 1.80 Bet Fred (2 Units)
Nick Kyrgios - 4.5 Games @ 1.73 Bet365 (2 Units)
Jack Sock - 4.5 Games @ 1.91 Bet Fred (2 Units)
Dominic Thiem - 2.5 Games @ 1.91 Bet Fred (2 Units)

Season 2017- 22 Units (472 Units Staked, - 4.66% Yield)
Season 2016- 5.64 Units (2013 Units Staked, - 0.00% Yield)
Season 2015- 21.81 Units (1812 Units Staked, - 1% Yield)
Season 2014+ 45.05 Units (1586.5 Units Staked, + 2.84% Yield)
Season 2013+ 21.74 Units (1251.5 Units Staked, + 1.73% Yield)
Season 2012+ 49.21 Units (855 Units Staked, + 5.76% Yield)
Season 2011+ 82.02 Units

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Boxing Picks 2017- Deontay Wilder vs Gerald Washington (February 25th)

It is a big night of Heavyweight Boxing across the pond in Alabama as Deontay Wilder makes his return from an injury lay off.

Before that Gavin McDonnell looks to become the latest World Champion from Great Britain in a card in Hull, although he is the underdog in that fight.

Gavin McDonnell vs Rey Vargas
This is a big fight that headlines the card in Hull as Gavin McDonnell tries to match the achievement of his twin brother Jamie by becoming a World Champion. Have no doubt it is going to be a big test for McDonnell against the heavy-handed Rey Vargas although I don't think either fighter has been in with someone as good as they face on Saturday.

That alone makes it difficult to get a real read on whether one or the other has yet to be truly tested like you can see when other fights are put together.

Home advantage is important for McDonnell, but he is going to be facing someone with the power and height and reach advantage and I do think it is going to be very difficult for the underdog. He is someone who has shown heart in his fights and the ability to pace himself to the point of having plenty in the tank for the latter stages of a fight, but McDonnell has to try and frustrate Vargas and hope he can take the power shots that will be landed by the Champion.

People will point to McDonnell's win over Jorge Sanchez as proof he can bridge the gap in this one, but I am not convinced Sanchez is of the level that Vargas brings into the ring.

Only Vargas has been down before out of the two fighters, but I think the Mexican might just start finding his shots in the second half of the fight once he figures out his surroundings. It would be great to see McDonnell become the next World Champion from Great Britain, but I think Vargas may prove a little too tough and can earn a stoppage in the latter stages of the fight as his power is able to wear down McDonnell in the fight.

Dominic Breazeale vs Izuagbe Ugonoh
Dominic Breazeale makes his return to the boxing ring for the first time since being stopped by Anthony Joshua in Round 7 of their Heavyweight Title fight back in June 2016. The big American should be given some credit for being able to last as long as he did in that fight because Breazeale ate a lot of big shots before eventually being put away and this might already be seen as a fight to determine whether he is a contender or a gatekeeper in the Heavyweight Division.

The winner of this fight between Breazeale and Izuagbe Ugonoh could be positioned into a title shot in the coming months as the Heavyweight titles begin to be sorted out following Tyson Fury giving up the belts he worked so hard to win.

Ugonoh is trying to show that his potential can be turned into gold as the fighter representing Poland also looks to become the first World Heavyweight Champion from that nation. This is a chance to show he is more than just someone who has knocked over some of the tomato cans that have been put in front of him because I don't really think Breazeale is going to be someone that is capable of winning a World title.

That is no disrespect to Breazeale because he will likely do enough to position himself to earn another title shot at some time, but Ugonoh might have too much punching power for the American to handle.

None of the last five opponents that Ugonoh has faced have last beyond Round 4, but I do want to give Breazeale credit in saying that he will take a punch. Ugonoh has to be careful he doesn't punch himself out when he has Breazeale in trouble as Amir Mansour did in a defeat to the American.

The comparison will be with Anthony Joshua, but I think Ugonoh may have to wait a little while too with his own stoppage of Breazeale. I can see Breazeale taking a few shots on the way to wearing down and getting a little tired and I believe Ugonoh finishes the fight around the same time as Joshua did. However I will just simply look for Ugonoh to earn the win by a KO/TKO at odds against.

Deontay Wilder vs Gerald Washington
After hand and bicep injuries coming out of the fight with Chris Arreola, Deontay Wilder returns to the boxing ring with a real belief that 2017 will be the year for the big fights for him. The American has his fans, but some are questioning the standard of opponents even if Wilder has been a little unfortunate with a couple of fights that have fallen through because of his opponents testing positive for drug use.

Wilder is fun to watch with 36 of his 37 fights ending with a knock out and many of those have been highlight reel knock outs too. He has been trying to showcase his other skills too in some of his fights and that might be a reason that his last five fights have gone at least eight Rounds each.

His opponent might be raw and coming in as a replacement, but I fully expect Wilder to take his time with Gerald Washington and not allow the underdog to perhaps get off a lucky shot. Every Heavyweight fighter out there has a puncher's chance of winning a fight if they are underestimated and in reality that is the only way Washington is going to win is by finding a shot out of nothing.

Washington does have some decent names on his resume, but this is a huge step up from the fighters he has been in the ring with. He is a big man though and I think that will mean Wilder is going to take his time to work out what Washington is bringing to the ring before turning on the style as the fight wears on.

We all know the power that Wilder possesses and I do think he will end up knocking out Washington, but the fight may take a few Rounds to get going. The last four stoppages from Wilder have come in Round 9, 11, 9 and 8 and I will look for the WBC Champion to end this one in the second half of the fight as Washington tires and takes too many shots for the referee to step in.

MY PICKS: Rey Vargas Win Between 7-12 @ 4.00 Ladbrokes (1 Unit)
Izuagbe Ugonoh Win by KO/TKO @ 2.20 Paddy Power (2 Units) 
Deontay Wilder Win Between 7-12 @ 2.80 Paddy Power (2 Units)

Weekend Football Picks 2017 (February 25-27)

The Europa League draw was made on Friday and I will admit that Manchester United facing Rostov was one of the teams I really hoped my club would avoid. Of course you have to beat whoever is in front of you to win a competition like this, but Jose Mourinho was right to point out that Rostov are a decent side and coupled with the travel time it really is the worst draw Manchester United could have received.

It will be tough, especially around the Chelsea game in the FA Cup Sixth Round, but the Second Leg being back at Old Trafford could be a difference maker. I do think Manchester United will score in Russia as long as Mourinho picks a strong teams, and the key will be to stay in the tie in the First Leg.

Even a narrow loss with an away goal could be good enough for Manchester United, but like the manager, I will be focusing on games this weekend before I look to break down the next set of Champions League and Europa League ties to come in March.

Manchester United v Southampton Pick: There has only ever been one piece of silverware won by Southampton and that came in the 1976 FA Cup Final when they upset Manchester United. Expect that to be mentioned a few times on Sunday ahead of the first domestic silverware of the season being handed out in England as Southampton look to upset their more illustrious opponents again.

It is going to be interesting to see how much the rest that Southampton have had will factor into this match. While they have not played in over two weeks by the time this game kicks off, Manchester United would have played three times and I guess it depends on what you like as to how you will factor that in.

Some will think the rest will mean Southampton have more energy and are fresher, but the flip side is that they might have been knocked out of rhythm. On the other hand Manchester United players have been playing, and importantly winning, football matches which will give them the confidence that they can keep their run going.

Jose Mourinho has experience of finding the right formula to win these big games, although it will be a big disappointment if Henrikh Mkhitaryan is forced to sit out with injury as is expected. There is still a lot of talent in the Manchester United squad that should give them the edge and the players have been given some rotation over the last three matches which should mean they are mentally ready to go in this one.

Manchester United have played plenty of football matches at Wembley Stadium over the last twelve months and have positive memories with two trophies picked up here. The form guide has seen Manchester United putting together plenty of wins and they should have a little too much for Southampton on the day.

I think everyone should respect Southampton because this inconsistent team can produce some big performances as their two wins over Liverpool in the English Football League Cup will show. However Southampton have not beaten the big teams (those in the top six) too often when they have met them and they would have lost 5 of 7 of those games if you take out the wins in the League Cup.

The loss of Virgin Van Dijk is a big blow for Southampton and Manchester United are defending well enough to cope with some of the pace The Saints have in the final third. I do think Manchester United will still find a way to create enough chances to win this match and I will look for Jose Mourinho to win his first piece of silverware as manager of this club within the 90 minutes regulation time.

Chelsea v Swansea City Pick: I wasn't sure that Swansea City knew what they were doing when they were searching for a third permanent manager in the space of a couple of months, but the appointment of Paul Clement looks an inspired one. The players look a lot happier than they ever did under Bob Bradley and they have responded by winning 3 of their last 4 Premier League games.

That has taken Swansea City out of trouble at the bottom of the table, although there is still considerable work to be done if they are going to avoid the drop. What has been impressive is the performances against teams like Liverpool and Manchester City where Swansea City have played much better than a team who have been struggling all season and that could make them a danger if Chelsea overlook them this weekend.

With no European distractions, it is hard to imagine Antonio Conte overlooking any team as he looks to take Chelsea to the Premier League title. Chelsea have responded with plenty of professional performances under Conte and they have been imperious at Stamford Bridge where they have won 11 in a row and have been scoring plenty of goals.

Defensively Chelsea have been very strong all season and that has been the foundation to their success and the wins they have been producing. Even when not at their best in an attacking sense, Chelsea will feel they just need a single goal to win games, although they have tended to play better at Stamford Bridge.

Swansea City have won at Liverpool and narrowly lost at Manchester City recently, but Chelsea won't gift them goals as those two clubs did. With a week to prepare, I expect Chelsea will come out and look to control their opponents and I like the home team to win by a couple of goals this weekend.

Crystal Palace v Middlesbrough Pick: There was a relegation 'six pointer' here at Selhurst Park at the beginning of February and Crystal Palace were stunned to find themselves 0-4 down to Sunderland by half time of that game. It really was an unexpected performance from Crystal Palace so soon after winning at Bournemouth and Sam Allardyce will insist they cannot start as badly in this one.

The first goal is going to be all important between Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough with neither team likely to be able to fight back if they fall behind. Neither have shown they can score enough goals to do that and in a big game like this one, I am expecting plenty of tension on the field.

Home advantage has not been very good for Crystal Palace and they have failed to score in their last couple of games here. On the other hand Middlesbrough have only scored a single goal in their last 5 away Premier League games and I am not anticipating too many goals in this one.

The layers are all over those stats though with the oddsmakers offering short odds for one, or both, of these teams failing to score and even backing under 1.5 total goals is plenty short.

Out of the two teams, I do think there is more potential in the Crystal Palace team going forward and I think that could show up here. I thought they were very short when priced up to beat Sunderland, but this one is odds against on the home team and I think that is more appealing.

Middlesbrough haven't travelled well and have kept a single clean sheet in their last 7 away Premier League games. The lack of goals for Crystal Palace is a concern, but I think Allardyce will get things turned around for them and they are well rested having not been in action during FA Cup Fifth Round weekend. At odds against I will back Crystal Palace to earn a vital three points in this one and I will back them to do that.

Everton v Sunderland Pick: There was some criticism of David Moyes from the Sunderland fans that he was still going to take his squad on a team building exercise in New York City despite a 0-4 home loss to Southampton in their last Premier League game. Personally I don't really see the issue there as Moyes has to stick to his methods to try and turn things around for Sunderland.

Now he takes his team to Goodison Park where Moyes enjoyed so much success as a manager, but who will also note the defeat that ended his time as Manchester United manager. Sunderland may have won their last away game at Crystal Palace, but they might be running into Everton at the wrong time.

The hope will be that Everton have just had some of their momentum snapped by the two week break between games. If not, this could be a long day in the office for Sunderland when they face an Everton team who have scored 13 goals in their last 3 home Premier League games and have scored at least three times in each of those games which have unsurprisingly led to wins each time.

Sunderland kept a clean sheet and won their last away game, but that had snapped a run of 6 consecutive away losses and conceding at least two goals in each of those defeats. The away team will try and defend in numbers, but Everton are unbeaten in 8 Premier League games and look like one that will create chances and score goals and I do think they will be too good on the day.

Last season Everton beat Sunderland 6-2 and while I don't think they match that margin of victory, I do think they can win this one by a couple of goals. I will back Everton to do that by picking them on the Asian Handicap to overcome Sunderland and keep up their chase for European places while leaving their former manager in a precarious position in the League table.

Hull City v Burnley Pick: The oddsmakers are clearly anticipating a tight game between Hull City and Burnley on Saturday, but I am not sure that is going to be the case. Marco Silva and Sean Dyche both like their teams to try and play football and I do think Hull City and Burnley have played well enough in recent weeks to produce a surprisingly high-scoring game.

Of course the points on offer will bring some tension into the game, but Silva needs to be given a lot of credit for allowing Hull City to play with some freedom in their games under his management. That has seen The Tigers show some bite against some of the better teams in the Premier League and the players should have a lot of confidence now they are taking on a Burnley team who have struggled on their travels.

However Burnley have scored in their last 4 away games in the Premier League even though they have lost all of those by the same 2-1 scoreline. This Burnley team do not defend as well on their travels as they do at Turf Moor, but they have also shown they can give Hull City something to think about when pushing the other way.

5 of the last 7 home Premier League games Hull City have played have ended with at least three goals shared out. They have scored at least twice in 4 of their last 5 at The KCOM Stadium, but the clean sheet against Liverpool was the first they have had at home in the Premier League this season. Burnley can become the latest to score here and I would not be surprised if this game is poised at 1-1 at some point.

Settling for a point won't really be in the mind of either manager when three points could be a huge boost for them and I will look to back at least three goals being shared out at odds against.

West Brom v Bournemouth Pick: A strong season at home for West Brom has pleased the fans that might have been on Tony Pulis' back because of the style of football they had been producing last season. With wins behind them, West Brom have been able to put the ball on the ground and play their football this season and they have been very good at The Hawthorns.

This isn't an easy game for them because Bournemouth will try and play their football too and they will likely have a bit more space to do that with West Brom trying to do the same. Instead of a physical battle, this could be a fairly good watch and it is a game that Bournemouth would have targeted for points to arrest their slide towards the bottom three.

However the concern for The Cherries has to be the amount of goals they have been conceding on their travels in recent weeks. They have lost 6 of their last 7 away games in all competitions and Bournemouth have conceded at least three times in each of those losses which is not going to lead to too many points.

At The Hawthorns West Brom have found themselves on a roll at times and that has seen them rack up the goals which might not be a feature of Tony Pulis teams of the past. The Baggies have scored at least twice in half of their Premier League games here and West Brom have played 8 teams who are below them in the League table and won 7 of those while scoring at least twice in 6 of those games.

Those are some impressive numbers and I will back West Brom to win this one at odds against on Saturday.

Watford v West Ham United Pick: The live game on Saturday in the Premier League might not capture the imagination of too many fans considering it is between two mid-table sides. However I think both Watford and West Ham United can play their part in a decent game of football and I believe they will share out at least three goals for the neutrals tuning in.

It does feel both Watford and West Ham United can play with a little freedom with their relegation fears from earlier in the season looking like they are in the rearview mirror. Both have some technically good players on the field, while neither is defensively as strong as they would like and that can mesh into a decent, attacking game of football.

The home team have been a little more erratic in front of goal and Watford will need to be close to their best if they are going to get something from this match. Their opponents West Ham United did lose 1-0 at Leicester City, but around that game they have scored four goals at Swansea City and three goals at both Middlesbrough and Southampton in some high-scoring wins.

Andy Carroll's absence would be a blow considering he has scored four goals in those 3 away wins, but West Ham United have found a solid method to play at away grounds in the Premier League recently. They should cause Watford problems, but West Ham United have not kept an away clean sheet in their last 8 away games in the League.

I was tempted in backing West Ham United to win this as the underdog, or even on the Asian Handicap with a slight start, but I think there will be goals in the match. Both teams should have a positive mindset and backing at least three goals at odds against looks a decent price.

Tottenham Hotspur v Stoke City Pick: Thursday night was a big disappointment for Tottenham Hotspur right through the club as they were upset by a Gent team that have been struggling in Belgium and who had been playing a rotated team in both Legs of their Last 32 Europa League tie. More struggles at Wembley Stadium won't have impressed too many either as Tottenham Hotspur will be playing every 'home' game here from August.

The side have won just 1 of their last 8 games at Wembley Stadium, but returning home to White Hart Lane might be important for Tottenham Hotspur to get back on the horse this weekend. They have won 9 in a row at White Hart Lane in all competitions and Tottenham Hotspur are still in a very good position to finish in the top four and return to Champions League football next season.

Mauricio Pochettino has to realise this is a big chance to up the pressure on their top four rivals as three of those won't be playing in the Premier League this weekend. Nothing less than a win will do for Tottenham Hotspur and they did bounce back from the First Leg of their Europa League tie last week by beating Fulham 0-3 at the weekend.

With the shots and chances created by Tottenham Hotspur on Thursday, they will believe they can get the better of a Stoke City team who have lost 4 of their last 5 away Premier League games. Stoke City did earn a draw at Manchester United earlier this season, but they have lost all 5 other games they have played at teams who are currently above them in the League table.

Stoke City do have a good record here and are well rested considering they haven't played in two weeks compared with Tottenham Hotspur who have had three matches in that time. Those factors coupled together may have a few backing Stoke City with the start, but their losses at the teams above them have come comfortably with defeats by at least two goals at Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea already this season.

If Tottenham Hotspur create half the chances they did on Thursday they should be too good for Stoke City in this live game on Sunday. I will back the home side to become the latest to beat Stoke City by a couple of goals.

Leicester City v Liverpool Pick: Some of the talk coming out of the Sevilla-Leicester City game had to be revolving around a very good score for the English Champions, but I do think some of it was over the top. The side lost yet another game and were beyond fortunate to come away with a 2-1 loss and I am not sure that level of performance is going to prevent them from being relegated from the Premier League.

Of course some will say perhaps it can be used as a 'turning point' for the Leicester City fortunes, but the earlier Champions League performances didn't really help them and continuing to lose matches is not a good thing.

Leicester City can't afford to be defending as poorly as they have been when Liverpool come to town considering the pace and quality the latter have in the forward positions. A lack of goals for Leicester City is a big concern and Liverpool are a team that do generally score goals away from home even if they failed to do that in a 2-0 loss at Hull City last time out.

The onus is on Leicester City to come out and play football but that has resulted in back to back 0-3 home losses here to Chelsea and Manchester United. They look a squad that is going to drop their heads if they fall behind and I think a well rested Liverpool team will be able to expose any vulnerabilities they see in the home defence.

We should note that Liverpool have had defensive problems of their own, but Leicester City have struggled to find the formula to score goals more often than not in recent weeks. Leicester City have lost 3 of their last 4 Premier League games here and all of those have come by more than a single goal margin.

Liverpool have struggled away from home in recent weeks, but they do score goals and I think they will become the latest club to leave The King Power Stadium with an impressive win behind them.

Leeds United v Sheffield Wednesday Pick: The Yorkshire derby between Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday has some big Play Off implications attached to it and this could be a tight and tense encounter at Elland Road. However, both teams have been creating chances and scoring goals at home/away respectively and neither team have looked watertight defensively in recent weeks either.

That could mean this is a surprisingly high-scoring derby game although the last 3 at Elland Road between these teams have ended 1-1.

The 1-1 scoreline has a real potential in this one too, but both will know how much more important the three points are and that could see both teams at least trying to win the game. The oddsmakers don't really believe in the chance of seeing goals, but I think they could be wrong.

It is a big price for a reason, but I will be backing these two teams to combine and provide an entertaining game for the neutrals tuning in.

Barnsley v Huddersfield Town Pick: It does look like Huddersfield Town have plenty of momentum behind them with lots of wins in recent weeks, but keeping that up is going to be difficult and they still need Newcastle United and/or Brighton to hit a rough patch if they are going to finish in the automatic promotion spots.

A Yorkshire derby at Barnsley is going to be a test for Huddersfield Town even if Barnsley have not been winning a lot of games of late. They were beaten by Brighton here last weekend so it will be up to Huddersfield Town to match that and keep the pressure on a club that have come close to promotion to the Premier League before crumbling under those expectations in recent seasons.

Winning here won't be easy because Barnsley will be desperate to reignite their own Play Off ambitions while denting a rivals' bid at the same time.

Barnsley haven't scored in their last couple of home games, but this is a club that has found scoring not much of a problem all season. They are facing a Huddersfield Town team who have not had too many clean sheets away from home this season and I do think this could be a game where we see goals.

Both teams have shown plenty of attacking potential through the campaign and I will back at least three goals to be shared out at Oakwell on Saturday.

Brentford v Rotherham United Pick: Brentford have been an inconsistent team at home all season so picking them to win a game by more than a single goal margin can be tough to understand. However they are playing a Rotherham United team who have been terrible on their travels all season and who tend to lose games by more than a single goal margin in recent weeks.

This is also a Brentford team who have been scoring plenty of goals in recent games. Brentford have scored 17 goals in their last 8 League games and they have hit three goals in their last couple of games here. Reaching that margin again will make it very hard for Rotherham United to stay within the handicap margins.

Rotherham United have not scored in any of their last 6 away games in the League and I think Brentford will likely have too much for them over the course of this game. I will back them on the Asian Handicap to record a big win on Saturday.

Newcastle United v Bristol City Pick: This is the kind of game that Newcastle United will be looking to show off their Premier League quality and they simply cannot afford to drop points in this one with teams chasing them for the automatic promotion spots in the League.

They have been in good form and Bristol City have absolutely been struggling over the last few months.

7 defeats from their last 8 away games in the Championship is not the kind of run you want to take into a trip to St James' Park and Bristol City have conceded at least twice in all but one of those games. It is interesting to note that none of those losses have come by more than a single goal margin, but this is as tough a ground as Bristol City will have visited.

At St James' Park, Newcastle United have won 9 of their 11 games by at least two goals and I will back them on the Asian Handicap to continue that trend.

Brighton v Reading Pick: Brighton and Reading meet in a big League game on Saturday and this has huge automatic promotion implications for both clubs.

That should mean there will be some tension between the teams with the importance the three points means for both Brighton and Reading.

However I do think there will be chances at both ends as there was when Huddersfield Town and Reading met on Tuesday, but slightly more composure in front of goal will surely lead to more of those opportunities being taken. Both games between Brighton and Reading this season have produced at least three goals and I think that is a real possibility in this one.

The tension surrounding the game and what it means could cause some careful play, but a first half goal will open this one up and I will back at least three goals to be shared out.

Norwich City v Ipswich Town Pick: This is a big game for both Norwich City and Ipswich Town as every East Anglia derby tends to be, but arguably it is a bigger game for Norwich City who are trying to work their way into the top six of the Championship.

You can understand why Norwich City are a short priced favourite to win this game considering how well they have played at Carrow Road all season, but I can't see this being an easy day in the office for them.

Ipswich Town have scored in their last 3 away games and they can give Norwich City some problems considering the home team have conceded in 3 of their last 4 games here. However Norwich City have scored plenty of goals too and this feels like it could be the fourth game in 6 East Anglia derby games at Carrow Road that end with at least three goals shared out.

Hopefully the early start on a Sunday doesn't mean the players are a touch on the slow side as they wipe the sleep from the eyes. Being a derby game should give them motivation to start quickly and I will back at least three goals to be shared out by these teams.

MY PICKS: Manchester United @ 1.85 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Chelsea - 1.5 Asian Handicap @ 1.77 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Crystal Palace @ 2.15 Bet Fred (2 Units)
Everton - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 1.91 Bet365 (2 Units)
Hull City-Burnley Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.45 Betfair Sportsbook (2 Units)
West Brom @ 2.10 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Watford-West Ham United Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.00 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Tottenham Hotspur - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 1.97 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Liverpool - 1 Asian Handicap @ 2.08 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Leeds United-Sheffield Wednesday Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.50 William Hill (2 Units)
Barnsley-Huddersfield Town Over 2.5 Goals @ 1.91 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Brentford - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 2.06 Bet365 (2 Units)
Newcastle United - 1.25 Asian Handicap @ 2.12 Bet Victor (2 Units)
Brighton-Reading Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.00 Bet Fred (2 Units)
Norwich City-Ipswich Town Over 2.5 Goals @ 2.05 Bet Victor (2 Units)

Thursday, 23 February 2017

NBA Picks February 2017 (February 23-28)

The All-Star Game is in the books and this is now considered the 'second half' of the season even though the majority of regular season games are already in the books.

Usually I couldn't care less about the All-Star Game which is a glorified exhibition game, although I do give credit to all the players who get a chance to play in that game. It usually signifies a change in mentality for players as they now want to get into Play Off mode and so I see the All-Star Game as the 'turning point' for the majority of teams.

With the trade deadline just days after the All-Star Game, it does means teams have a chance to sit down and really work out what they want going forward.

This year the All-Star Game and the trade deadline meshed up as the big New Orleans move for DeMarcus Cousins was revealed as the All-Star Game came to a close. That is a huge trade that has a huge potential for the future of the Pelicans franchise with Cousins and Anthony Davis capable of forming part of a 'Big Three' which has become the base for most teams to challenge for the NBA Championship in recent years.

The Pelicans didn't really have to give up a lot to get Cousins either and I do wonder if other teams around the Association are perhaps wondering if they missed out on getting a player with his best years ahead of him. Cousins has been a distraction at times during his years with the Sacramento Kings, but this is a player capable of being in the top 10 players in the NBA and a huge acquisition for New Orleans if Cousins and Davis can bring their off court friendship into a professional setting.

I am looking forward to see if a new power in the West will emerge in the coming years, but this is going to be a learning curve for the Pelicans with the best they can really hope to do is have a First Round series with the Golden State Warriors.

There have been a couple of other moves that have gone under the radar which could be strong moves when looking back at them in the Play Offs, while there is the potential for at least one more blockbuster trade ahead of the deadline on Thursday afternoon.

The picks were in good shape ahead of the All-Star Break and I am looking to pick up from where I left off. I will have all of the remaining February Picks in this one thread with a short month coming to a close next Tuesday.

Thursday 23rd February
Be aware if any late trades that potentially occur which could affect the games being played later today.

Charlotte Hornets @ Detroit Pistons Pick: One of the teams who look like they will be taking calls for a couple of their better players are the Detroit Pistons and I do wonder if that will have an affect on their performance on Thursday. While it looks like the likes of Andre Drummond will not be moved on, that uncertainty can pose problems for a team until the trade deadline is shut and so that will go on until four hours before this game is going to tip off.

The chances are that both the Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons will not have be involved at this late stage of the trade deadline, but you simply just don't know.

Both teams are fighting it out at the bottom of the Eastern Conference Play Off standings and there is a real hope for both Detroit and Charlotte that they can do enough to enter the Play Offs in April. Neither has a real hope of winning the Eastern Conference, but progress comes by earning some Play Off experience.

Going into the All-Star Break, Charlotte had been in really poor form and they have to snap out of that immediately if they will expect to get back into the Eastern Conference top eight standings. I will note that Detroit have been very good at home and this is not a lot of points for them to cover, but I think the Hornets might be a little more settled of the two and that can be important coming off a long lay off.

Charlotte are 9-4 against the spread in their last thirteen games agains the Detroit Pistons and I am going to take the points with them on Thursday.

Houston Rockets @ New Orleans Pelicans Pick: The biggest news of the last ten days at the time I am writing this is the trade the New Orleans Pelicans made to bring in DeMarcus Cousins from the Sacramento Kings without giving up too much in terms of assets or picks. Most of us out there feel the Pelicans have made a real coup, but it will be a trade that will reveal its true colours in the next few seasons.

Pairing Cousins with Anthony Davis has given the Pelicans the foundation to create a real power in the West, and the NBA in general, for a few years to come and there has to be some real excitement in New Orleans. There should be a real party atmosphere in the city that just hosted the All-Star Game, but Alvin Gentry will be the first to tell you that it will take time for Cousins and Davis to really get on the same page.

They are close off the court already so I am anticipating Cousins and Davis to be dominant together, but it will take time for the rest of the New Orleans roster to work out how to get the best out of them.

When this line first came on, New Orleans were set as a pick 'em with the Houston Rockets but the money has come in on the visiting team. I still think the spread is one that the Rockets can cover with their high-scoring power and the addition of Lou Williams gives them another scorer, although Williams will not be available in this one.

Some rumours also surround Patrick Beverley and whether he will stay with the Rockets through the trade deadline, but I do think this Houston team will have just a little too much scoring power for the New Orleans to compete. The Pelicans can get into the top eight of the Western Conference standings over the next few weeks, but I think they start the 'second half' of the season with a loss and I will look for Houston to increase their 5-2 record against the spread from the last seven against the Pelicans.

LA Clippers @ Golden State Warriors Pick: There was some suggestion that the Boston Celtics and LA Clippers were talking about a potential deal for Blake Griffin, but it does look like the Celtics have moved on and looking elsewhere now. That rumour alone suggests the LA Clippers don't have the belief that their current roster is good enough to win the NBA Championship and one of the main reasons has to be how poorly they have competed with the Golden State Warriors who are the benchmark for the Conference.

Chris Paul and Griffin have both missed prolonged time on the court with injuries, and those have also shown up in the Play Offs in the last couple of seasons. Paul is back from injury but his status for this game at The Oracle Arena is unsure and the Golden State Warriors will be looking to move into overdrive in the second half to build the momentum through to the Play Offs.

There is no distraction of earning the best regular season win record this time around and that might be really good for the Warriors when they get into the last couple of weeks of the season. They will have a chance to rest some of the starters and get them ready for the Play Offs and the Warriors can continue putting out a statement to the rest of the Western Conference by continuing their dominance of the LA Clippers.

The Clippers are 0-3 against the spread when they are set as the underdog of 9 points or greater this season and they have lost all three games to the Warriors this season with each loss coming by 13 points or more. Golden State are 19-7 against the spread in their last twenty-six games when hosting the LA Clippers and I like them to come through with a cover of a big number.

Friday 24th February
I have to be a little irritated by the Charlotte Hornets failing to cover when you think they were outscored 44-23 in the Fourth Quarter and Overtime and only missed the cover by two points. That's a bad beat for sure, but hopefully the only one I will have through the remainder of the month.

Memphis Grizzlies @ Indiana Pacers Pick: This is a big few months for the Indiana Pacers and will go a long way to helping Paul George decide whether his future is with the Pacers or elsewhere. There were rumours about Indiana shopping George ahead of the trade deadline, but he remains here for now as the Pacers try and make sure they don't slip out of the top eight places in the Eastern Conference.

Even if they do make the Play Offs, being as far off the pace as the Indiana Pacers look like they are compared with the top Eastern Conference teams has frustrated George. Instead of bringing in the help that he would have expected, Indiana have stayed stationary at the trade deadline as they come out of the All-Star Game trying to snap a six game losing run.

Another team who stayed with what they have were the Memphis Grizzlies who are hoping they have invested good money in Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons, especially if Parsons can get back to full health. The Grizzlies have had some really big wins this season to show they can compete with any teams in the Western Conference but they have been inconsistent which is why they are not in a top four position.

The Grizzlies have gone back to basics by making sure they are stronger on the Defensive side of the court and I think that is going to be a key part of why they can win here. Memphis also have the size to win the battle on the boards and the Grizzlies are 6-2 against the spread in their last eight games in Indiana.

Memphis are 6-3 against the spread when set as a small favourite of under 3 points, while the Indiana Pacers are 3-6 against the spread when given less than 3 points as the underdog. I will look for the Grizzlies to be a little too good out of the All-Star Break and cover in their first game.

Utah Jazz @ Milwaukee Bucks Pick: The Utah Jazz were interested in bringing in some help before the trade deadline and may instead need to focus on the buyout market once that begins to filter out. This is a team that has every belief they are good enough to earn a First Round Play Off series at home and Utah will be confident behind the strong Defensive showings they have produced for much of the season.

They head to the Milwaukee Bucks in their first game in the 'second half' of the season and their hosts are a team that have been sliding in the wrong direction in the Eastern Conference. Losing Jabari Parker for the rest of the season is a big blow for the Bucks but they are still only 1.5 games behind the Number 8 Seeded Detroit Pistons.

The Bucks did win their final three games before the All-Star Break, but none of those came against a team as strong as the Utah Jazz. Milwaukee are still not playing well enough Defensively which is a concern for them as it puts too much pressure on them on the Offensive side of the court, and that might be especially an issue when facing a team as good as Utah are Defensively.

Utah have a big advantage with the size they bring to the court and that should mean they are the winners on the rebounding statistic which should allow them to pull away in this one in the second half.

The Jazz are 8-3 against the spread when they are favoured by 4 points or fewer this season and they are also 4-1 against the spread in their last five games in Milwaukee. I will look for them to cover on the road on Friday.

LA Lakers @ Oklahoma City Thunder Pick: The LA Lakers might not have made the personnel move before the trade deadline to give the fans something to be excited about, but Magic Johnson has come in to oversee basketball operations. Johnson might be a legend in these parts, but that won't mean the fans will continue to let the Lakers slide from the glory days of the franchise and the next two years will be big for their former star.

A young roster will continue looking to make strides, but they have sunk towards the bottom of the Western Conference as the Lakers look lottery bound. The Lakers had taken some heavy losses prior to the All-Star Break and they have also lost Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets who had been providing a big scoring boost for the team.

That makes it tough when they head to the Oklahoma City Thunder who have traded for Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott from the Chicago Bulls to give their rotation a boost. Russell Westbrook is still the biggest name here, but the Thunder do have some size about their team which will make them a tough out for many teams even if they are some way short of where they were twelve months ago.

When Russell Westbrook gets going the Thunder do tend to follow and they may not have been a double digit favourite this season, but I do think they can cover in this spot. The Lakers have gone 0-7 against the spread in their last seven games in Oklahoma City and the last five of those have all been won by at least 10 points each time.

It will need Westbrook to turn on the afterburners at some point, but I do think the Thunder can win and cover a big number.

Miami Heat @ Atlanta Hawks Pick: If the trade deadline had been a month earlier, I have little doubt that the Miami Heat would have been a main player as they would have gutted their roster and prepared for next season. Somehow the Heat finally all got on the same page and a strong run has put them on the brink of the Play Off spots after spending the majority of time at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

Another win over a Play Off rival will get some momentum behind the Miami Heat, but the Atlanta Hawks are another team that decided not to shop the house but instead believe their current group of players can have an impact in the Play Offs. There has been more consistency from Atlanta which means they are chasing the chance to host a First Round Play Off series, but this has proved to be a tough match up for them.

Atlanta are 0-6 against the spread in their last six against Miami and they are 4-10 against the spread when hosting the Heat. The pressure comes from the Miami Heat's ability to beat out the Atlanta Hawks on the boards and that allows them to work into second chance points and also prevent the Hawks being able to do the same.

This will be a tough game though and there really isn't a lot to separate them which makes the mental side of things perhaps more prevalent than in other games. The Hawks have won 2 of their 3 games outright this season which should mean Atlanta believe they can win this one, but Miami are playing much better than when they lost the opening couple of games against Atlanta.

I will take the points with the Heat to keep this one close and continue their strong run of success against the spread when facing the Hawks.

Saturday 25th February
Atlanta Hawks @ Orlando Magic Pick: The Atlanta Hawks laid an egg on Friday as they were blown out at home by the Miami Heat, but I think they can bounce back when they head south to face the Orlando Magic on Saturday. The Hawks will be boosted by the return of Dennis Schroder who was suspended for returning late from the All-Star Break and was forced to sit out on Friday.

They are also visiting a team who have traded away Serge Ibaka before the trade deadline and the Magic are in another transitional season. Orlando are slipping towards the bottom of the Eastern Conference and only the awful Brooklyn Nets are keeping them from having the worst record in the Conference.

The Magic have lost six of their last seven games and the majority of those have been very comfortable as they have struggled at both ends of the court. It has been the struggles to stop teams Defensively which has really hurt them and the Atlanta Hawks should be capable of taking advantage of that.

It has been a real issue for Orlando at home this season and they have a pretty poor 3-9 record against the spread when hosting a team with a winning record. They have been poor as a small underdog too and I do think the Hawks can bounce back from their loss on Friday which saw them give some of the starters a rest with that game out of hand fairly early on.

Atlanta are 11-5 against the spread in their last sixteen games in Orlando and I will back them to cover the number in this one.

Indiana Pacers @ Miami Heat Pick: The Indiana Pacers got a much needed win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday, but it wasn't all good news as Paul George had to leave the game. It does sound like it was a precaution more than anything serious and it is expected that George will play here.

This is a big game for both Indiana and their hosts the Miami Heat as they are both chasing the Play Off spots in the Eastern Conference. Even though Indiana won last time out, the Miami Heat are the team with a lot of momentum behind them and blowing out the Atlanta Hawks has shown that the All-Star Break is not going to slow them down.

The Heat look like they will have the edge at both ends of the court and that will be magnified if George is out or limited in this one. Miami are also getting a lot of production off the bench which has made them dangerous and I do think they will have a little too much for the Pacers in this back to back game for both teams.

Miami have enjoyed the visit of the Indiana Pacers in recent games as they are 7-2 against the spread in their last nine home games against them. The Indiana Pacers have not been the best small underdog to back this season either, even if they covered in that spot on Friday, and the form the Heat have been displaying makes me confident they can come through with a win and the cover.

Minnesota Timberwolves @ Houston Rockets Pick: Opposing a rested team who have the shooting capabilities of the Houston Rockets with a team who are on a back to back is probably not the best of ideas. It is more of an issue when you think that the Minnesota Timberwolves have really been a young team who have had issues Defensively all season, but I do like the road team with a huge number of points in this one.

It is a number you could easily regret because Houston are a hot three point shooting team who have added Lou Williams to what was already a very strong shooting team. Williams had a solid debut with Houston in a blow out win at the New Orleans Pelicans a couple of nights ago, but the Timberwolves also won out of the All-Star Break and look like a team who still believe they can enter the Play Offs.

The Timberwolves have gone 3-0 against the spread when given double digit points as the underdog this season and they are a team that scores plenty of points which gives them a chance to at least stay with the Rockets in this one.

Minnesota are also 5-1 against the spread in their last six against the Houston Rockets and the key will be to challenge Houston on the boards and not allow them to have second chance points off their three point shooting. The Timberwolves can do that, but this is still dangerous opposing Houston who have been wearing out teams in their last few games.

However, I like the number of points being given to the underdog and I will take those in this one.

Sunday 26th February
Utah Jazz @ Washington Wizards Pick: This is a game between two teams who are going to be playing in the Play Offs in April, but who also have bigger ambitions than merely making up the numbers. The Utah Jazz have been a solid Defensive team all season with players capable of scoring points in bunches, while the Washington Wizards have found a great chemistry over the last three months.

That should make this an intriguing game, but Washington are playing at home where they have been very strong in that time. I like the motivation levels with the Wizards too having lost at Philadelphia a couple of days ago and they will want to build some momentum to take into the home game with the Golden State Warriors.

I do think the Washington Wizards match up well with the Utah Jazz with what they want to do on the court, although the Utah size is a problem for any team that goes up against them. However Bradley Beal and John Wall are capable of opening up the shooting lanes and Washington have been efficient shooting the ball which should give them a chance to move away from the Jazz.

Washington have a very good 8-3 record against the spread when favoured by 3 points or fewer this season and they are also 10-6 against the spread when hosting a team with a winning record. Compared with that, Utah are just 4-8 against the spread when visiting a team with a winning record and the Jazz have lost on their last four visits to the Wizards.

I will lay the points with the home team to bounce back from their upset loss at the 76ers in the first game out of the All-Star Break and I will take Washington to win and cover.

Boston Celtics @ Detroit Pistons Pick: The Boston Celtics didn't use a huge number of assets to bring in a big name player that could be paired with the ones they already have and make them a threat to win the NBA Championship. That was a disappointment to the fans who have been patient in the slow rebuild of this franchise, which has been paying dividends.

Close losses to the Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors either side of the trade deadline would not have improved the mood of the fans who may feel this was a big opportunity to close the gap on the injury hit Cleveland Cavaliers. Those losses also showed the Celtics that perhaps they still need to be better to beat the best teams in the NBA and they might be motivated to show they are better than those close losses have.

A trip to the Detroit Pistons won't be easy with the home team chasing a Play Off place themselves, but the Pistons can't afford to work their way into a big hole as they did against the Charlotte Hornets on Thursday. They recovered to win that game in Overtime, but this Boston Celtics team are unlikely to crumble in the same manner as Charlotte did.

Detroit will need more from Reggie Jackson, who has been struggling, and they have to become the latest team to dominate Boston on the boards if they are going to beat them. However Boston have enjoyed playing as a small favourite as they are 8-3 against the spread as a favourite of less than 3 points this season.

The Celtics have been the more efficient shooting team of the two and they are 4-1 against the spread in their last five visits to Detroit. I will lay the small points in this one with the favourite.

New Orleans Pelicans @ Oklahoma City Thunder Pick: The trade for DeMarcus Cousins is surely going to be a winner for the New Orleans Pelicans, but have no doubt that it does take time for top players to work out how to play with each other. We saw that when the 'Big Three' got together at the Miami Heat and I don't think anyone should be surprised that the Pelicans have lost both games played so far with Cousins in their line up.

This is a tough third game for them before they have a few days off where practice will be so important to understand how to get the best out of Cousins and Anthony Davis in the same line up. Now they have to visit an Oklahoma City Thunder team who are much more aware of what they need to do on the court, namely let Russell Westbrook do his thing, and that has helped them win plenty of games.

The Thunder are one of the teams in the NBA that won't be bothered by a Cousins-Davis tandem as they have plenty of energy around the boards and some big players who are willing to battle for the rebounds. Oklahoma City have just been a little better Offensively than the New Orleans Pelicans too and I think that shows up in this one.

Oklahoma City are 13-3 against the spread when hosting a team with a losing record this season and they are 4-1 against the spread in the last five against the New Orleans Pelicans.

This is a pretty big number when you think of the potential New Orleans have, but I think it will take a bit of time to really see the Pelicans at the best and this is the third favourite I will pick on Sunday.

Monday 27th February
Milwaukee Bucks @ Cleveland Cavaliers Pick: The Cleveland Cavaliers dropped to 4-19 in games they have played without LeBron James since he returned to his home team in July 2014. They were beaten without James by the Chicago Bulls a couple of nights ago which means Cleveland are 0-4 without 'The King' this season and they are set to miss James for another game on Monday night.

This time they host the Milwaukee Bucks who are on a back to back, although still desperately chasing a spot in the Eastern Conference Play Offs. The Bucks beat the Phoenix Suns on Sunday which means they are just a game out of the top eight in the East and a surprise win on Monday will certainly give the Bucks a boost.

The loss of Jabari Parker is a big blow for Milwaukee, but the problems have remained on the Defensive side of the court. They have still been able to score points at the other end, and facing a Cleveland team without James, Kevin Love and JR Smith is a huge boost for them, while the Cavaliers might also be focused on working in some of their new players which means chemistry might be lacking a little more than usual.

This is also not a great spot for the Cavaliers who host the Milwaukee Bucks after facing the rival Chicago Bulls and ahead of a four game run where they face Boston, Atlanta and Miami on the road before the Heat come to Cleveland. Milwaukee are shooting well enough to make this number of points count if James sits as expected and I will take the points with the road underdog.

Atlanta Hawks @ Boston Celtics Pick: The Boston Celtics will face the Cleveland Cavaliers at home next, but that game will only mean as much for the Celtics as it could if they can win this game. They are currently 3 games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers in the race for the Number 1 Seed in the Eastern Conference so winning the next two games gives them a very good chance to close that gap.

The Boston Celtics are on a back to back, which is a concern, but they have got a 5-1 record against the spread in their last six in that spot. Of course the game with Cleveland might be taking some of the focus away, especially as the Atlanta Hawks have been struggling coming out of the All-Star Break with two disappointing losses to their name.

Those defeats have seen the Hawks slip to 2.5 games behind the Toronto Raptors for a First Round home series in the Play Offs, but they have to significantly improve in the coming weeks. A home loss to the Miami Heat can be forgiven a lot more than the manner of their loss at the lowly Orlando Magic and the Hawks have now lost four of their last five games.

It does look like the Boston Celtics have the more efficient shooting team of the two and their ability from the three point range could be a difference maker. The one area where Atlanta will feel they can stay close with the Celtics is their ability on the boards and out-rebounding Boston, an issue the Celtics have been having.

The Celtics are now 12-4 against the spread when favoured by less than 5 points this season and I am going to lay those points and look for them to get the better of Atlanta.

Minnesota Timberwolves @ Sacramento Kings Pick: The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Sacramento Kings are both in a position to finish in the top eight of the Western Conference. The Timberwolves are 3 games behind the Number 8 Denver Nuggets and the Kings are 1 game behind, but moves before the trade deadline suggests only one of these teams has a genuine belief they can finish in the Play Off spots.

Sacramento dealt away DeMarcus Cousins and got almost nothing back for one of the top players in the NBA, although they have gone 1-1 in their two games since that move. It is hard to know how the Kings can be consistent enough to finish in the Play Off spots with Cousins in New Orleans and Rudy Gay absent with an injury and it is up to Minnesota to show they are good enough to win enough games to move up the standings.

There is so much talent in Minnesota who have decided to stay with their group for the rest of the season despite rumours linking them with a move for Derrick Rose. Ricky Rubio would have been moved on if Rose had arrived, but Rubio is perhaps a little under-rated despite not being one of the better shooting Point Guards in the NBA.

He facilitates so much for the rest of the Timberwolves, but this team needs to show more effort Defensively if they are going to move into the top eight of a tough Western Conference. However I do think they shoot well enough to win this game in Sacramento and they can improve their 6-2 record against the spread in their last eight games as the visitor here.

Minnesota should have the advantage on the boards now Cousins has been moved on and I think they are the better shooting team. The Defensive concerns always exist when asking Minnesota to cover a number, but I am not sure Sacramento have the consistency to stay with them and I will back the Timberwolves to cover.

Tuesday 28th February
Portland Trail Blazers @ Detroit Pistons Pick: The team that finishes in the Number 8 Seed of both the Eastern and Western Conference is not likely to be long for the Play Offs, but that won't put off either the Portland Trail Blazers or Detroit Pistons. Both teams are desperate to take the next step in their development by getting used to Play Off basketball, although the Trail Blazers are clearly more experienced in that regards.

It does make this a big game for both teams as the regular season enters the final stretch and both teams in a position to finish in the Play Offs.

Inconsistencies has been a part of the season for both Detroit and Portland with the teams looking very good one day and then like a lottery bound outfit on another. Playing at home should be the key for the Detroit Pistons who are 6-0 against the spread in their last six here hosting a team with a losing record on the road and who have bounced back from a straight up loss by going 5-0 against the spread in their next game.

The Pistons have looked a little better Defensively which is going to help them have the chance to move away from the Trail Blazers in this game.

Portland are just 3-12 against the spread when set as the underdog of less than 6 points this season and they have a 1-4 record against the spread in their last five visits to Detroit. They battled hard in a loss at Toronto last time out, but I think the Trail Blazers suffer another one here and I will back Detroit to cover the number.

Phoenix Suns @ Memphis Grizzlies Pick: The Memphis Grizzlies have been a little inconsistent over the last few games and that has prevented them from really moving into the top four of the Western Conference. That is the goal that has been set for the players and they are a big favourite to beat the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday.

The Grizzlies will be expected to do that before heading on a tough road trip, but asking them to cover double digits against a Suns team who have been able to score points might be a big ask. This is the first time this season that Memphis will have been set as a double digit favourite and I do think it will be tough for them to cover.

Phoenix are 4-9 against the spread in their last thirteen against Memphis, and they were beaten by 19 points here before the All-Star Break. That should mean they are motivated to show they are better than that and Memphis might also think this is a game they can handle and perhaps have begun to look ahead to their road games coming up at Dallas and Houston later this week.

Since that loss to Memphis, Phoenix have been much more competitive and this is a lot of points for any professional team to cover. That is especially the case for the Memphis Grizzlies who are not built to blow teams out and who will be challenged by the size and solid back court Phoenix bring to the court.

Memphis are just 5-5 against the spread when hosting a team with a losing record this season and I will take the points with the underdog.

Utah Jazz @ Oklahoma City Thunder Pick: I am a little surprised the Oklahoma City Thunder are the home underdog against the Utah Jazz when you think the Thunder have a 22-8 record here this season.

The Thunder are only 6-6 against the spread at home against a team with a winning record, but the Jazz have struggled when visiting a team with a winning record. They have won at Washington a couple of days ago, but Oklahoma City are 7-2-1 against the spread in their last ten home games against Utah.

Oklahoma City have the size to compete with the Utah Jazz on the boards and they have Russell Westbrook who is the best player on the court.

My concern has to be how bad the Thunder have been as a small underdog this season with their 1-6 record against the spread when given less than 3 points. However I do think Oklahoma City have the advantage being at home and I will take the points being given to them as I look for the home upset.

MY PICKS: 23/02 Charlotte Hornets + 4.5 Points @ 1.91 Coral (1 Unit)
23/02 Houston Rockets - 4 Points @ 1.91 Ladbrokes (1 Unit)
23/02 Golden State Warriors - 12.5 Points @ 1.95 Sporting Bet (1 Unit)
24/02 Memphis Grizzlies - 1 Point @ 1.95 Betfair Sportsbook (1 Unit)
24/02 Utah Jazz - 3 Points @ 1.95 Betfair Sportsbook (1 Unit)
24/02 Oklahoma City Thunder - 10 Points @ 1.95 Boyle Sports (1 Unit)
24/02 Miami Heat + 3.5 Points @ 1.91 Ladbrokes (1 Unit)
25/02 Atlanta Hawks - 3 Points @ 1.91 William Hill (1 Unit)
25/02 Miami Heat - 4.5 Points @ 1.95 Bet Fred (1 Unit)
25/02 Minnesota Timberwolves + 11.5 Points @ 1.91 Coral (1 Unit)
26/02 Washington Wizards - 2.5 Points @ 1.95 Bet Fred (1 Unit)
26/02 Boston Celtics - 1.5 Points @ 1.95 Betfair Sportsbook (1 Unit)
26/02 Oklahoma City Thunder - 6.5 Points @ 1.91 William Hill (1 Unit)
27/02 Milwaukee Bucks + 7.5 Points @ 1.95 Bet Fred (1 Unit)
27/02 Boston Celtics - 4.5 Points @ 1.95 Betfair Sportsbook (1 Unit)
27/02 Minnesota Timberwolves - 5 Points @ 1.91 William Hill (1 Unit)
28/02 Detroit Pistons - 4.5 Points @ 1.91 Ladbrokes (1 Unit)
28/02 Phoenix Suns + 10 Points @ 1.91 Paddy Power (1 Unit)
28/02 Oklahoma City Thunder + 1.5 Points @ 1.91 Bet Fred (1 Unit)

February 23-28 Update: 11-8, + 2.21 Units
February 13-16 Final8-4-1, + 3.48 Units
February 6-12 Final8-5-2, + 2.41 Units
February 1-5 Final5-3, + 1.59 Units

February Update21-12-3, + 7.48 Units
January Final26-28-1, - 4 Units
December Final19-23, - 5.51 Units
November Final24-25-1, - 2.92 Units
October Final8-9, - 1.72 Units

Season 201758-62-2, - 8.64 Units

Final Season 2016150-143-7, - 5.37 Units
Final Season 2015109-108-5, - 6.91 Units
Final Season 201458-72-1, - 16.86 Units
Final Season 2013105-93-3, + 10.49 Units
Final Season 201279-53-1, + 27.48 Units