This is the time of the season when things begin to pick up on the long road through to the NBA Finals in June and I will place all the First Round Picks in this one thread.
With the new 'Featured Post' on this site, I will be able to place the entire the First Round Picks in one thread which will remain the 'Featured Post' after Monday with the new Picks added when they are ready.
Sunday 16th April
Atlanta Hawks @ Washington Wizards Game 1 Pick: The Atlanta Hawks and the Washington Wizards have to look at this First Round series and believe there is every chance of them moving through to the Eastern Conference Semi Finals. It is the Washington Wizards who have earned home court advantage in the best of seven series with the winning team moving on to face either the Boston Celtics or Chicago Bulls for a place in the Eastern Conference Finals.
That is very much a winnable portion of the bracket and that is going to create tension of its own as both Washington and Atlanta look for a deep run in the Play Offs. Both teams have gone through some difficult moments at times this season which would have highlighted their weaknesses, but character isn't one of the issues as both the Wizards and Hawks fought through those moments to earn a top five finish.
The key to the entire series is going to be how well Atlanta are able to cope with the back court of John Wall and Bradley Beal. Those two are capable of taking over games on their own, but the Atlanta Hawks should some strong Defensive sets to help them make the Play Offs and they were both solid inside the paint and also at the three point line which will be tested to the full by Washington.
However the Hawks have to believe they have been shooting the ball well enough to expose some of the Defensive issues that Washington have displayed. That has been an issue for much of the season and Atlanta have been shooting the ball effectively since Paul Millsap returned to the line up.
Atlanta have been strong on the boards and they are 14-5 against the spread when given at least 5 points as the underdog this season. The Hawks are also 5-1 against the spread in their last six games when facing a team with a winning record, while Washington are 1-6 against the spread in their last seven in the same situation.
The underdog has gone 5-2 against the spread in the last seven in this series and I will look for the Atlanta Hawks to make use of the points in Game 1 of this First Round series.
Portland Trail Blazers @ Golden State Warriors Game 1 Pick: The Golden State Warriors come into the Play Offs as a big favourite to win the NBA Championship for the second time in three seasons. They are looking healthier than most teams, while their biggest rivals have some questions to answer as we head into the post-season.
Most will be picking the Warriors to win the NBA Championship, but some have suggested they could roll through the post-season, although there are some big teams in the Western Conference that may want to prove a point. The First Round series is not expected to be that team as the Portland Trail Blazers snuck into the top eight of the Western Conference and were beaten in five games by Golden State in the Western Conference Semi Finals last season.
Jusuf Nurkic was a huge addition for Portland and sparked their run into the Play Offs, but he remains questionable having broken a bone in his leg which has kept him out down the stretch in the regular season. I do think he might be ready to go in Game 1, but he will likely be on limited minutes and I am not convinced it will be enough for Portland to stay with a Golden State team who have to heard the comments made by Damian Lillard that Portland can win this series in six games, even if those were made in jest.
As the regular season came to a close, the Warriors were able to reinsert Kevin Durant in the starting line up and that has seen them shoot efficiently and I expect that to be too much for the Trail Blazers. Golden State have picked up the Defensive effort which is highlighted at the three point line and they have the size and energy to grab enough of the battles on the glass to prevent the Trail Blazers making this Game 1 competitive.
The Warriors are 12-3-1 against the spread in their last sixteen games and they have gone 20-6 against the spread in their last twenty-six Conference First Round Play Off games. As well as Portland played to secure their place as the Number 8 Seed in the Western Conference, but they would have invested a lot of energy to do that and I think Golden State can continue their strong run against Portland.
Golden State 20-6 against the spread in their last twenty-six home games against Portland. They are also 16-8-1 against the spread in Game 1 in the First Round of the Play Offs and blew out Houston here last season and I am looking for them to cover a huge number in the opening game of these Play Offs.
Oklahoma City Thunder @ Houston Rockets Game 1 Pick: This is one of those First Round series that has a lot of interest as the two leading contenders for the MVP award in the regular season face each other. Russell Westbrook has not left the Oklahoma City Thunder behind despite some big names leaving in recent years with one of those now plying his trade with the Houston Rockets, James Harden.
Both have had exceptional seasons, although Westbrook's has been historic. Unfortunately for Westbrook, he doesn't have the same depth of supporting cast as Houston give Harden and that is likely to show up over a seven game series.
It was the Rockets who edged the regular season meetings with three wins compared with Oklahoma City's one, but any team who has Russell Westbrook will feel they have a chance. However the Rockets have the superior consistent shooting outside of Harden and I think Mike D'Antoni can put together enough Defensive schemes to help the Rockets 'contain' Westbrook and force other role players to step up and support him.
Where the Thunder have been dominant for much of the season is on the boards and so it will be up to Houston to make sure their three point shooting is on point in this one. Failing to do that will give the Thunder every chance of stealing away home court advantage in the series and is going to be a key to how the entire First Round series plays out.
Houston didn't end the season with good numbers against the spread, but they are 5-2 against the spread when being given at least three days rest between games. The Thunder are 3-8 against the spread when set as the underdog who have been given at least 6 points and the Rockets also have a strong recent record against this opponent.
The Rockets are 9-1 against the spread in the last ten in this series and they are 5-1 against the spread in the last six at home. I will be looking for Houston to move into a 1-0 lead in this series behind some hot shooting from players outside James Harden and making things too difficult for Russell Westbrook to do on his own.
Monday 17th April
It has been a difficult start to the Play Offs for the NBA Picks, but I've been on the wrong side of a couple of big runs in a couple of those games. The Memphis Grizzlies complete fell apart in the middle of the Third Quarter in their blow out loss to the San Antonio Spurs, while the Golden State Warriors very nearly came out with a cover after crushing Portland in the Fourth Quarter but allowed a couple of buckets to fail to do that inside the last minute of that game.
The first two days of the Play Offs completed the Game 1's in every First Round series and three of the teams hosting have dropped that game. That puts the pressure on them to respond in Game 2, while the lower Seeds who have lost Game 1 will be desperate to find a way to split the first two games before heading home for two games.
Indiana Pacers @ Cleveland Cavaliers Game 2 Pick: There has been something of an investigation as to why the Indiana Pacers did not find a way to get Paul George the ball back in the final seconds of Game 1 with the game on the line. Instead CJ Miles came up just short for the winning bucket and allowed the Cleveland Cavaliers to escape with a 1-0 lead in this First Round series.
Despite that defeat, the Indiana Pacers feel they have shown they can compete with the Cleveland Cavaliers in this best of seven First Round series, but you do have to factor in the emotions of coming up short in Game 1. Whether the Pacers can pick themselves up with just a day of rest for Game 2 is the question, while the Cleveland Cavaliers have to be expected to make some adjustments after almost blowing a big lead in Game 1.
The Cavaliers won't be overly concerned with the way Game 1 went, even though it has led to people outside of the locker room to suggest there are still some big issues to resolve which have been shown up over the last two months. Defensively the Cavaliers continued to struggle, while the Indiana Pacers had the real edge on the rebounding stats that allowed them to get back into the game after Cleveland had pulled away.
A key to this one is whether some of the Indiana role players can make the big shots when their team is perhaps struggling outside of Paul George. Lance Stephenson had some big buckets in Game 1, but the likes of CJ Miles as to show that he has erased the miss from Game 1 and is ready to go in this one.
The Pacers have been playing with some confidence over the last few weeks to put themselves into the Play Offs and they are 9-4 against the spread in the last thirteen following a loss. Indiana have covered in their last six games where they have had one day rest between games, while Cleveland are 1-5 against the spread in their last six in that situation.
Indiana improved to 7-2 against the spread when given 8 or more points this season after Game 1 and they are also 5-1 against the spread in their last six games in Cleveland. I will be looking for the Pacers to cover for a second game in a row here by taking the points and looking for them to keep things close again.
Memphis Grizzlies @ San Antonio Spurs Game 2 Pick: At the middle point of the Third Quarter in Game 1, the Memphis Grizzlies were very much holding their own against the San Antonio Spurs. However the home team turned up the Defensive heat and the Grizzlies couldn't create any stops which allowed the Spurs to run away with a 1-0 lead in the series and an easy cover of a big number.
They are now being asked to cover another big spread in Game 2, but you have to think the experienced Memphis Grizzlies can make the adjustments to make this a closer contest. I have criticisms of the Grizzlies who are stuck in a position where they are trying to change the culture of the team, but perhaps are too inconsistent to rely on the three point shooting when put under pressure like they were in Game 1.
Gregg Popovich was much happier with the Defensive effort San Antonio produced in the second half having started slowly in the First Quarter. The expectation is that the Spurs come out with more focus on that side of the court from the beginning of their Game 2 on Monday night. The improved second half saw San Antonio limit Memphis to under 40% shooting from the field and the strength on the boards was a key for the Spurs.
The total points were surpassed in Game 1, but I think the play could be on the 'under' coming out in Game 2 as both Memphis and San Antonio make Defensive adjustments after Game 1.
The series has been one where the under has been the play in recent games as it is 4-1 compared with the over play in the last five played in San Antonio in the series between these teams. It is also 7-3 overall in the last ten in the series and I think both teams might produce a tighter performance all around compared with Game 1 which might mean a lower than expected Game 2.
Tuesday 18th April
The Game 2 Play Off games have both produced a couple of winners on Monday and I am now looking for three home teams to bounce back from their opening losses.
Milwaukee Bucks @ Toronto Raptors Game 2 Pick: The Toronto Raptors have an awful record in Game 1's in the Play Offs, but it was still a surprise to see them go down to a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. Losing home court advantage is a disappointment for the Raptors, but anyone who thinks that is enough to determine the outcome of a series is very much mistaken.
On the other hand, Toronto are in a desperate spot as they don't want to be in a situation of being 2-0 down and heading to Milwaukee for two games later this week. The Raptors were really poor in the second half in Game 1 and they are looking to make the adjustments to make sure DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are not bottled up as they were.
Lowry in particular struggled and the Raptors will be looking for more from him as well as the likes of Serge Ibaka who is expected to be cleared in time for this one. Ibaka turned an ankle in Game 1, but he should be ready to go, while the Raptors will be looking to find a way to quiet Giannis Antetokounmpo who had a big game on Saturday.
The Bucks have already achieved their goal from the first two games, but they will not want to let Toronto run away with an easy Game 2 to get back into the series. Instead this is seen as a chance for this young roster to perhaps move into a really commanding position in the series although they will have to be a little better at controlling the boards.
I do expect the Raptors to bounce back and they are 4-0 against the spread in their last four after a straight up loss, while they are 4-1 against the spread in their last five following a double digit loss at home. The Bucks are 3-8 against the spread in their last eleven following a win and the favourite is still 6-1 against the spread in the last seven in this series.
Toronto should be a little more focused and have shown they can recover from losing Game 1 in the recent series they have played in the Play Offs. A team who was upset in Game 1 in the First Round are 38-16-2 against the spread in Game 2 when they are hosting that game against a Number 6 or lower Seed. Those teams are 15-2-2 against the spread when favoured by 8 points or fewer and I am going to back the Raptors to cover.
Chicago Bulls @ Boston Celtics Game 2 Pick: It was an emotional night at the TD Garden in Game 1 as the Boston home supporters made sure Isaiah Thomas knows how much they are feeling for him. Thomas was informed just a day before Game 1 that his younger sister had passed away in a car accident and Thomas was clearly emotional as was the entire building just hours later.
It would have been fitting if the Boston Celtics had won Game 1, but the Number 1 Seed in the Eastern Conference is not going to be given a free run from the Chicago Bulls regardless of how much sympathy they will feel for Thomas.
The Boston star is going to return home to be with his family on Wednesday, but that means he is going to play in Game 2 and try and help the Boston Celtics even this series. It looked a tough one prior to the sad events of Saturday involving Thomas' sister, but one that looks even more difficult now the Celtics are 0-1 down and playing a team with a lot of Play Off experience to call upon.
Jimmy Butler had a huge Game 1, but a bigger key may have been the success Chicago had on the boards with 23 second chance points being huge for them. Boston have to make the adjustments to perform better on the glass, while they will also be looking for more from Jae Crowder who didn't really have one of his better games and getting those adjustments should give the Celtics a chance to head to Chicago with a 1-1 level series.
The favourite is 7-2 against the spread in the last nine in this series and the home team is 7-1 against the spread in the last eight.
Boston are also in a similar position to Toronto in that they are looking to bounce back from an upset loss at home in Game 1 and those teams have a 15-2-2 record against the spread when favoured by 8 or fewer points in Game 2. I will look for the Celtics to be a little better at keeping Robin Lopez from dominating the boards and that should see them get ahead of this number and level up the First Round series.
Utah Jazz @ LA Clippers Pick: The LA Clippers are the third team playing their Game 2 on Tuesday having dropped Game 1 and home court advantage in the series. There is so much experience right through the LA Clippers organisation that no one will be worrying about going 0-1 down in this First Round series, but winning Game 2 is very important for the Clippers before heading to the Utah Jazz for two games.
Rudy Gobart was lost to an injury just 20 seconds into Game 1, but the Utah Jazz were able to get big games from the likes of Derrick Favors and Joe Johnson, who had the game winning bucket, to earn the upset. The absence of Gobart could be critical the longer this series goes and the LA Clippers are hoping to show they have an edge on the boards now their opponents have lost a huge body.
Chris Paul made it clear there were a number of factors that the Clippers need to improve in this one, but getting JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford on track is imperative if the Clippers are to get back into this series. There is also going to be some Defensive adjustments to try and earn more baskets in transition, while the Utah Jazz are preparing for a response from the LA Clippers now they have earned an upset in Game 1.
The Clippers have bounced back with a 5-2 record against the spread in their last seven games following a loss while they are playing a Utah team who are 1-4 against the spread when playing with two days rest.
I am looking for the LA Clippers to improve their 5-2 record against the spread in the last seven of this series despite dropping Game 1, and they also fall into the same category as the other two home teams playing on Tuesday. That is those teams coming in off an upset in Game 1 improving to 68-42-4 against the spread in Game 2 and I will lay the points with another team on Tuesday.
Wednesday 19th April
That Tuesday did not feel very good as a couple of the home teams did manage to win their 'desperation' Game 2, but neither covered. A tough day means the First Round Play Off Picks are not in a great position at the moment, but there is still ten days to get this turned back around prior to the Conference Semi Final series.
Atlanta Hawks @ Washington Wizards Game 2 Pick: The Atlanta Hawks will feel they let Game 1 slip away having led at half time before a poor Third Quarter gave the Washington Wizards the momentum to hold on at the end. There were some solid adjustments made by the Wizards at half time which allowed them to get back on track and they will be looking to make it 2-0 before heading to Atlanta for two games.
On the other side of the court, the Hawks are also looking to show improvement after having two days to rest and get their Defensive shape in order to prevent John Wall taking over another game. There has been a clear decision made by Atlanta to prevent Wall getting going on the fast break, but stopping him in theory and practice is very different.
The Hawks also feel they were bullied in Game 1 and will be looking for a reaction despite suggesting Washington played MMA rather than basketball in the second half. Atlanta have the experience of the post-season which should remind them that officials tend to be a little more lenient when it comes to physical play in the Play Offs and it is up to the Hawks to respond in the correct way on the court.
Washington have the likes of Jason Smith and Kelly Oubre Jr back in the rotation for Game 2 and they will be looking to pick up from where they left off. It does make it harder to read the outcome of Game 2 after the spread was barely covered in Game 1, but I think the Defensive adjustments that both teams are likely to make could mean we have a tighter Game 2 than what we saw in Game 1.
I am looking for Atlanta to try and slow the entire game down this time to restrict Washington from using their speed to run away with things. The Hawks have seen their last fifty-three games following a loss go 36-15-2 in favour of 'under' the total points and the under was 4-1 in this series before Game 1 which did go over the total points line.
Picking the winner on the spread is more difficult and I will look for this game to finish under the total line which looks big on paper.
Oklahoma City Thunder @ Houston Rockets Game 2 Pick: Game 1 turned out to be a blow out for the Houston Rockets in what many considered to be the best of the First Round series we were going to see in the NBA Play Offs. No one in Houston is expecting the Oklahoma City Thunder to fade away without a response and both teams will have been working hard over the last couple of days in preparation for Game 2.
It was James Harden who won the battle of the MVP leading contenders, but he is benefiting from receiving more support from his role players compared with Russell Westbrook.
Game 1 wasn't the best from Westbrook either and that is going to give the Thunder almost zero chance of winning games if their best player is struggling. Too many turnovers and a poor efficiency from the field is not going to be good for the Thunder to compete with the Rockets who looked better on the Defensive side of the court.
Oklahoma City will be looking for a way to change the Defensive schemes so they are still very competitive from the three point range, but also protecting the paint. It was the overselling to prevent Houston from being able to produce their normal efficiency shooting the three ball which allowed the Rockets to dominate at the rim and Houston are very much aware the Thunder will change things around this time.
You have to believe Houston won't change their own schemes against Westbrook and force him to make some big shots while under duress. Getting the ball out of his hands and making his supporting cast hit some big shots was the key for Houston in Game 1, especially as those Oklahoma City players struggled to produce under the pressure of the post-season.
Houston improved to 10-1 against the spread in the last eleven in this series and they are 6-1 against the spread in their last seven at home against the Thunder. The old zigzag theory might say backing the Thunder is the correct call in Game 2, but I like the Houston Rockets to show they have the superior talent to go alongside James Harden and I will back the Rockets to cover in Game 2 as they did in Game 1.
Thursday 20th April
Cleveland Cavaliers @ Indiana Pacers Game 3 Pick: There has been a bit of a locker room split with the Indiana Pacers after dropping the first two games of this Play Off series and Paul George has been calling out some of his team mates. There is little doubt that George is one of the best players in the NBA, but he is feeling like he is being let down by his team mates and Indiana have to be worried with the superstar coming to the end of his contract.
I think it would be a big surprise if George does extend with the Pacers anyway, but a strong showing in the Play Offs might have got him thinking. Instead they are 0-2 down to the Cleveland Cavaliers and have seen two runs in the first two games ultimately come up short.
Indiana have a lot to like from the first two games, but their Defensive performance has not been up to the level they need and that means Cleveland have been able to pull away and then keep the Pacers at arms distance. The Pacers have had more shots in the first two games, but Indiana were beaten on the boards in Game 2 and that is not going to be good enough to knock off the defending NBA Champions.
A return home could change the feeling of this First Round series, but LeBron James and the Cavaliers are coming in with some confidence. James has been vocal in suggesting the Cavaliers are back on track even if they have yet to really produce a big game on the Defensive end of the court. However five straight wins against the Pacers has to make the Cavaliers believe they can head away from the next two games with at least a split to give them a chance to wrap up this series at home.
I have backed the Indiana Pacers to cover in the first two games of this series, but I am not sure they are still on the same page as one another. They could produce a big effort here to earn the upset and the Pacers have a strong recent record against the number when facing the Cavaliers, but the road team is 4-1 against the spread in the last five in this series and I am looking for Cleveland to cover with another strong second half run coupled with some big plays at the end of the Fourth Quarter.
Toronto Raptors @ Milwaukee Bucks Game 3 Pick: I can imagine there is some disappointment in the Milwaukee locker room that they are not returning home with a 2-0 lead in this First Round series having just faltered at a critical moment in the Fourth Quarter. Disappointment aside, Jason Kidd has to feel good that his young team have split the first two games, although his own Play Off experience is being passed onto the players and warning them that they need to take this a game at a time.
Kidd doesn't want Milwaukee to think about having two games at home because a loss of focus would give the Number 3 Seed Toronto Raptors the chance to steal back home advantage. The rotation was questioned in Game 2, but Kidd is happy with the decisions he made and is instead looking to find a way to get Giannis Antetokounmpo away from the double teams Toronto gave him in Game 2.
Stopping the 'Greek Freak' entirely is not really an option for the Raptors, but making sure he is contested every time he gets the ball is important. Toronto feel they did a good job in that regards in Game 2, but the adjustments have to be made to anticipate what Milwaukee will bring to the table in Game 3.
The Raptors are feeling much better having found a way to tough out Game 2 and there is a suggestion they are ready to get on a roll now. They will be tested in their first road game in the Play Offs, while PJ Tucker still thinks there is room for Toronto to find their groove now their starters are all back healthy for the first time in a number of weeks.
Picking a winner is tough in this Game 3 and the oddsmakers have set out a tight line on the spread. Instead I am going to back this game to head under the total point line with the 'under' being 9-3 in the last twelve in this series and 4-1 in the last five in Milwaukee.
Playing the 'under' has been profitable when Milwaukee and Toronto have faced up to teams with winning records and I think the adjustments in this Game 3 will be made on the Defensive side of the court from both teams. I will look for this game to finish under the total points mark barring a trip to Overtime.
San Antonio Spurs @ Memphis Grizzlies Game 3 Pick: The San Antonio Spurs have dominated the first two games in this First Round series and they are in a very strong position at 2-0 with back to back blow out wins. A return home for the Memphis Grizzlies is going to surely make these games more competitive while David Fizdale is coming off one of the all-time great post-game interviews.
Fizdale has been fuming at the lack of calls his grizzled, pardon the pun, veterans have been getting in the series compared with the San Antonio Spurs. The Head Coach was well prepared with the numbers backing up his belief and that might be influencing the officials in Game 3, while his own players have to be motivated to back up the Coach.
Finding the right formula is tough because the Memphis Grizzlies look overmatched in this series. A lack of scoring punch is always going to be difficult to overcome against a team like the Spurs, but being penalised so much more going to the Free Throw line has hurt Memphis.
I am expecting a reaction from the Grizzlies with all of their Play Off experience, but stopping Kahwi Leonard has proved too much without Tony Allen. Allen is out for the series so it is a case of next man up in stopping the superstar taking over another game, while Leonard is also benefited by the role players in the rotation who are able to hit big shots under pressure.
The Grizzlies can take comfort from the fact that so far the Spurs have done nothing but hold serve in their two games in the series. Memphis also beat San Antonio in both games here in the regular season, but they have to match the gears that the Spurs have clearly raised their game.
The favourite has improved to 11-5 against the spread in this series and I think the San Antonio Spurs will have to drop their standards significantly for them to drop this third game in the series. After two blow outs, I expect this to be a lot more competitive but I am still looking for the Spurs to overcome the number and move to one game from the Conference Semi Finals.
Friday 21st April
Remember at the back end of the regular season when the Cleveland Cavaliers coughed up a huge lead in a loss at the Atlanta Hawks? Well they made up for that in Game 3 in Indiana as they matched the largest comeback in NBA Play Off history to knock off the Pacers and move to 3-0 in the First Round series.
Boston Celtics @ Chicago Bulls Game 3 Pick: Earning the Number 1 Seed in the Eastern Conference ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers deserves its credit, but the Boston Celtics won't be remembered for that if they are unable to win this First Round series. In fact anything other than an appearance in the Conference Finals might be seen as a disappointment for the season so being 2-0 down after dropping the opening two games at home does not look a great position to be in.
There are other factors at play here with the sad news about Isaiah Thomas' sister on the eve of Game 1 playing a part, but the match up on the court can't be ignored. The Chicago Bulls are bigger and more physical, while they also have the best player on the court in Jimmy Butler who is also backed up by two veterans with immense Play Off experience in Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade.
The three of those players have been back on the same page like they began their tenure with the Bulls this season and the lack of a real superstar is hurting the Celtics. As good as Thomas is, his size is always going to hold him back from the real elite players and those elite players tend to stand up big in the Play Offs.
All of the onus is on the Boston Celtics to make the adjustments to get back into this series with the Chicago Bulls looking for more of the same from Game 1 and 2. The Bulls had more of the field goal attempts in the first two games and also showed their dominance on the boards and Chicago have won both regular season games against Boston in the Windy City.
The adjustments Boston need to make is on the Defensive side of the court as they have allowed Chicago to get what they like so far in the series. The Chicago role players have stood up and the Celtics are likely to make some line up changes to give themselves a chance of winning this Game 3. That means slowing down the Bulls and trying to steal one on the road to make sure this series is going to return to Beantown for at least one game.
Picking a winner is difficult although I was leaning towards the Bulls who have shown they have the right match ups in play. However Boston should have a response at some time and instead I am going to look to reverse the trend and play the 'under' total points line after Game 1 and Game went 'over' the number.
The 'under' has some good numbers in Chicago home and Boston road games and is 5-2 in the last seven between these two in Chicago. With my expectation the Celtics are going to make some changes to be stronger on the Defensive side of the court and Chicago's role players hitting an unsustainable number at the moment, I will look for a lower scoring game than the first two and look for these teams to fail to hit a big number barring Overtime.
Houston Rockets @ Oklahoma City Thunder Game 3 Pick: On paper this First Round series looked like it could be one of the more competitive ones in the NBA Play Offs because of two MVP leading contenders going head to head. Unfortunately the problem I have spoken about all season has come to the boil and that is simply Oklahoma City don't offer the same support to Russell Westbrook that Houston can give to James Harden.
The Rockets came back from a big deficit in Game 2 and that wasn't solely down to Harden taking over a game as many recoveries for Oklahoma City have been through Westbrook. A number of players hit some big shots and the Thunder were hoping Westbrook could do it all himself with little to no support from other players on the court.
The only way Oklahoma City can get back into this series is if others do step up and start hitting some big shots, but I am not sure the Thunder, or Westbrook, have much faith in players wearing anything but Number 0. In the Play Offs these issues become magnified and Oklahoma City are in a desperate spot with the Thunder returning home 0-2 down in the series and needing to 'hold serve' over the next few days.
Westbrook has shown he can carry the Thunder to wins, but the better teams tend to have more than one option and I think that can help Houston on the road. Mike D'Antoni was proud of the character and belief his team showed to come back from a big deficit to win Game 2 fairly comfortably, but he will be preaching a much faster start in an environment which is going to be loud and boisterous in Game 3.
Defensively the Rockets do feel comfortable with how they are going up against Westbrook and it is going to take a super-efficient performance from the superstar to help the Thunder come back in this series. Houston will know they have the scoring power to stick with Oklahoma City and they are 6-3 against the spread when given less than 4 points as the underdog this season.
Houston have a solid record against the spread when visiting teams who have winning records on the season and Oklahoma City are 1-4 against the spread in their last five games against a team who have won at least 60% of their games. The Rockets do have some ugly numbers too over the last few games of the regular season and start of the Play Offs, but they have covered twice in Oklahoma City this season to improve to 5-0 against the spread in their last five games here.
The Rockets are 10-2 against the spread in the last twelve in the series overall and the underdog is now 7-3 against the spread in the last ten in the series. I think Houston are the better team in this series and I think the poor start in Game 2 won't be replicated so I will take the points that are being offered here.
LA Clippers @ Utah Jazz Game 3 Pick: As long as Rudy Gobert is out of the line up, the Utah Jazz know there is going to be an issue protecting the paint and that showed up in a big way of Game 2 of this First Round series. The Utah Jazz did come away from Los Angeles with a split of the first two games and have stolen home court advantage, but they are looking to make the adjustments to prevent the Clippers dominating inside with DeAndre Jordan for a second game in a row.
That's going to be a difficult task with Derrick Favors perhaps not healthy enough to play the big minutes needed and Utah have accepted you can't replicate what Gobert brings to the team. They have shown continued fight though and won't allow the LA Clippers to have their own way, although Utah need to be significantly better in Game 3 to maintain home court advantage in the series.
The dominance in the paint was also shown up on the boards and the LA Clippers have to feel they are in a good position to head back home with this series back in their control. They will continue to try and dictate the temp of this game and force the Utah Jazz to play catch up, especially with their vaunted Defensive unit missing a huge piece like Gobert.
Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Jordan all had big games for the Clippers in Game 2 and they will feel they have the superior shooters if this game does break down into an Offensive one. However the Clippers have also played well Defensively in the Game 2 win and the three star players have admitted that their confidence is built on how well they do on that side of the court.
Playing Utah in Salt Lake City has always been a difficult proposition for teams and the Jazz have a very strong 15-7-1 record in their last twenty-three home games when facing a team with a winning record on the road. However the Clippers can match that with their 5-1 record against the spread in their last six games against a team who have won at least 60% of their home games.
The Jazz have not played well as a small underdog though and they are 4-14 against the spread when given less than 8 points as the dog this season. That number is 3-6 against the spread when given less than 4 points while the Clippers are a solid 12-7 against the spread when either set as a - 3.5 to + 3.5 team against the number.
Utah have dominated at home against the Clippers against the number, but they had lost 4 in a row here prior to beating the Clippers last time out. The road team is also 9-4-1 against the spread in the last fourteen in the series and I am going to take the Clippers to cover for the third time this series even if they have let me down twice already.
Saturday 22nd April
Toronto Raptors @ Milwaukee Bucks Game 4 Pick: It's hard to know what to think about the Toronto Raptors and another terrible performance in Game 3 which has dropped them to 1-2 in this First Round series. This is supposed to be a team who learnt a lot about the Play Offs when reaching the Eastern Conference Finals last season, but instead they look like the Play Off rookies and it is the Milwaukee Bucks who are playing with an experience a young roster should not have.
They have been helped by some lacklustre play from the Raptors, although Giannis Antetokounmpo is growing in front of our eyes with his performances in the post-season. On their part, Toronto have been disappointed with a really poor start made in Game 3 which meant they were chasing almost from the off and ended up with a blow out loss.
That loss is not a fatal one for Toronto whose goal over the few days in Milwaukee was to take back home court advantage and they still have a chance to do that. They have to expect better from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan who are in danger of being labelled 'regular season players' that can't cut it when things do move into the Play Offs.
Toronto did win the first two series in Game 7 in the 2016 Play Offs, but they never trailed 2-1 in either of those series, but in the 2014 Play Offs the Raptors were beaten in seven games by the Brooklyn Nets after losing Game 3 on the road. That does make me wonder if the Raptors are feeling the pressure mentally compared with the Milwaukee Bucks who were not expected to do much more than make the Play Offs and could play with a freedom that the young players have thrived in.
Now they do have something to lose though and that is why it is hard to read which direction Game 4 is going to take with the same spread from Game 3 being offered. Instead I am going to look for the two teams to combine for another 'under' the total points line as I expecting Toronto to try and keep this one closer with stronger Defensive play.
The 'under' improved to 4-1 in the last five in the series and it is the same in the last four in Milwaukee. There are some strong trends for both teams favouring the 'under' in this one and I will make the same play as I did for Game 3 and look for the Defensive schemes to be more important than the Offensive one to lead to a win for one of the teams.
Washington Wizards @ Atlanta Hawks Game 3 Pick: Some series have already reached their Game 4, but the Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks have just had a couple extra days to get ready for their Game 3 in this First Round series. They do play twice in Atlanta over the next three days and it is up to the Hawks to fight their way back into the series having dropped both games played in Washington.
Like so many road teams in the opening couple of games of a series, Atlanta have not become overly concerned about being 2-0 down as they now get to host two games. It still brings a pressure to try and level the series else they could be out of the Play Offs in a couple of days time or, at best, heading back to Washington trying to avoid the Game 5 exit.
Atlanta do think they have missed a real chance to at least have a split of the series already having led in Game 1 at half time and being tied up in Game 2 in the Fourth Quarter. Turnovers can be a killer in any game, but those have come at critical times for the Hawks and they know they have to clean up their game if they are going to get back into this series.
Facing off against John Wall and Bradley Beal will be a test for most teams, but it has been a particular problem for Atlanta who don't have the deep shooting to stay with the Wizards once they get going. Wall and Beal have combined for big points in both games and this Washington team can head to Atlanta and move into a commanding 3-0 lead in the series and I do think the Wizards can cover as the underdog.
Atlanta are 0-7 against the spread in their last seven when coming off a road trip of at least seven days, while they are 1-8 against the spread in their last nine at home against a team with a losing record on the road. The Hawks are just 4-10 against the spread in their last fourteen at home, and they are facing a Washington team who are 11-5 against the spread in their last sixteen on the road against a team with a winning record at home.
The Wizards are 21-8 against the spread in their last twenty-nine when playing with two days rest between games and they are 4-1 against the spread in the last five against Atlanta. They have looked the better team with Marcin Gortat getting the better of Dwight Howard inside the paint and the physical play disrupting Atlanta's Offensive groove, while the Wizards have the two players most likely to take over the series.
With that in mind I am going to take the points with the road underdog in this one.
San Antonio Spurs @ Memphis Grizzlies Game 4 Pick: The Memphis Grizzlies responded to an impassioned press conference Head Coach David Fizdale gave after Game 2 and that saw them pull out the home win to move to 1-2 in this First Round series. Fizdale didn't bite when it was put to him that the San Antonio Spurs still won the Free Throw battle in Game 3, but it is clear that his response saw his players produce a positive effort.
They are back at home in Game 4 and looking to square up the series having beaten San Antonio all three times they hosted them in the course of the 2016/17 season. There were some changes made to the rotation which allowed Memphis to compete better in Game 3 than they have in their two blow out losses in San Antonio, but the Grizzlies know there is going to be a reaction to that loss from the Spurs.
Despite only being down by 4 points at half time following an inconsistent first half, the poor play continued from San Antonio in the Third Quarter which led to Gregg Popovich pulling the starters. Popovich will be reminding the starters of their duties in Game 4 and he isn't concerned with making the big decisions if players are underperforming so I am anticipating a reaction from the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4.
Kahwi Leonard is still the best player on the court and he remains the one player that Popovich will be pleased with. HIs contribution so far in this series is taking him to the next level when it comes to superstar status, but winning a big game on the road will just put an exclamation point on how well he is playing.
Getting that win won't be easy with San Antonio's struggles in Memphis so far this season as well as the fact the Spurs are just 1-4 against the spread in the last five in the series here. The home team has improved to 8-3 against the spread across the last eleven games between these teams and I can't back the Spurs to cover as I thought they would in Game 3 because of the poor performance in Memphis again.
Instead I think taking the 'over' in the total points market could be the right play with the over now 4-0 in the last four games following a San Antonio loss. The over has also has a 9-3-1 record in the last thirteen Memphis home games and it is 3-1 in the last four between these teams in Memphis and I will look for the teams to combine to move above the total line set for this game.
Golden State Warriors @ Portland Trail Blazers Game 3 Pick: Even if the Golden State Warriors had not been able to sign Kevin Durant in the off-season, they would likely have come into the 2016/17 season as favourites to win the NBA Finals. So when they were missing Durant for Game 2 of this First Round series, it perhaps isn't the biggest surprise that they were still able to handle the Portland Trail Blazers to move 2-0 up in the series.
The timeline for Durant's return is uncertain and there is every chance Golden State will hold him out of Game 3 and make sure that he is getting plenty of time to rest his calf injury. Durant himself sounds like he wants to return to the court, but the Warriors understand it is a long post-season and might not feel the risk is worth the reward at 2-0 in the First Round series.
The Warriors looked like they would be the dominant team in this series and that has shown up in the first two games. Portland have suggested they are not concerned about that but are simply looking to show up on Saturday and show they are ready to compete with the Warriors, although the over-reliance on CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard means the Trail Blazers only go as far as those two players can take them.
Lillard has stated that Game 3 is almost a 'must win' game for Portland as they try to avoid dealing with the pressure of trying to avoid a sweep in Game 4 on home court. A return for Jusuf Nurkic would be huge for Portland as the trade with Denver and bringing Nurkic in to Portland sparked their run to the Play Offs when it looked they were going to be an also-ran in the loaded Western Conference.
Nurkic is doubtful for Game 3 and it is up to Portland to dig as deep as they can to try and get a win on the board. That isn't easy against a Golden State team who have been playing much better Defensively since the end of the Third Quarter of Game 1 and who have proved they are able to make some big plays on that side of the court to spark the Offensive game when necessary.
Golden State have some very strong numbers over the last few games of the regular season and entering the Play Offs and improve Defense can account for those. They are now 21-7 against the spread in their last twenty-eight Conference First Round games and the Golden State Warriors are 11-5 against the spread in the last sixteen games in Portland.
The Trail Blazers have played well at home, but I think the Golden State Warriors move to the brink of the Conference Semi Finals with another dominant win once they quiet the home fans.
Sunday 23rd April
Cleveland Cavaliers @ Indiana Pacers Game 4 Pick: There are some games that are very difficult to recover from and Game 3 might be one of those games for the Indiana Pacers. After leading by 25 points at half time, the Pacers allowed the Cleveland Cavaliers to match the biggest comeback in Play Off history to steal Game 3 and move to the brink of the Eastern Conference Semi Finals.
That is a huge mental blow for the Pacers to take after some internal bickering about why Game 1 and Game 2 were lost on the road in Cleveland. Now they have had two days rest since Game 3 to work out how they had eight more shots and twelve more rebounds but were unable to put away a Cavaliers team who had pulled all their starters bar LeBron James for the Fourth Quarter.
All of the emotions have been run through by the Indiana Pacers since the end of Game 3 with anger, sadness and now pride running through the veins of the rotation. No one wants to be swept out of the Play Offs and the Pacers have been speaking about taking each game as it comes and treating each with the desperation of a Game 7.
For Cleveland there are still some questions to answer beginning with how they allowed Indiana to score 74 points in the first half. There is work to be done, but the Cavaliers would love to get some more rest in and enjoy the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors push themselves into a Game 7, while the other positive from Game 3 was how well the bench players performed when they were called upon in the Fourth Quarter.
Defensively they have been challenged and these teams have now scored at least 108 points each so far in the series. That is going to be where Cleveland try to work but their games have seen the 'over' total points line go 9-3 in the last twelve when having two days rest between games.
The over is also 4-0 in the last four of this series and also 4-1 in the last five in Indiana and I am going to roll with that happening in Game 4. It is a big number being asked to be covered, but these teams have shown better Offensive performances than Defensive ones so far in the First Round series and I will look for another high-scoring game to occur.
Houston Rockets @ Oklahoma City Thunder Game 4 Pick: The Houston Rockets are a little irritated by the slow starts they have made to the last couple of games in this First Round series and are looking for a better start to Game 4. The fact is they have come back from big deficits and could easily have been 3-0 in the series with the Oklahoma City Thunder if James Harden had hit his buzzer beating attempted three pointer on Friday.
That Game 3 was very close and it took a huge effort from players not called Russell Westbrook for the Oklahoma City Thunder to win. The problem for the Thunder is figuring out if the likes of Taj Gibson and Victor Oladipo can pick up from where they left off on Friday and help Westbrook and the Thunder tie the series at 2-2.
It is a big ask of those players, although Westbrook won't listen to anyone describing his team mates as a 'supporting cast'. That is admirable of Westbrook, but the bottom line is that the inconsistencies of the other players on the Thunder roster makes it hard to see how they can beat the Houston Rockets in this series especially if Houston can make a decent start to Game 4.
This Game 4 has basically been set as a pick 'em contest with a small line and Oklahoma City barely favoured. I have been tempted to go with the Houston Rockets for a fourth time in the series knowing they have covered in two of the last three, and I remain convinced they are the better team in the series, and especially when I can't see the Thunder role players having as big a game as they did in Game 4.
However instead of backing the Rockets, I am looking for them to be a little better Defensively with both teams struggling to stop the other from the field in Game 3. Even with that in mind, they barely covered this total points line and I do like the fact that the 'under' is 9-3 in the last twelve in this series played in Oklahoma City.
The Thunder's last eleven games on one day rest has seen the under go 9-2 and it is also 6-2 in the last eight games played here. The under is 9-4-1 in the last fourteen Houston road games and their 32% field goal from the three point range suggests this could be a lower than expected scoring game.
The two games here in the regular season fell below this total and I am going to oppose the fact that two of the first three in the First Round have been high-scoring by looking for better Defensive stats all around.
Boston Celtics @ Chicago Bulls Game 4 Pick: The news that broke after I wrote my prediction for Game 3 of this First Round series was that the Chicago Bulls' Rajon Rondo had broken his thumb and is now ruled out indefinitely. His absence would have been considered a blow before Game 3, but after the Bulls lost at home it became clear how important Rondo was in the two wins they stole from the Boston Celtics on the road.
Part of the problem for the Bulls would have been the late news on Rondo and you would expect them to make better adjustments in Game 4 as the Bulls look to move back to two games in front of the Number 1 Seeds.
The size of the Chicago Bulls continues to be a problem for the Boston Celtics who have been out-rebounded by thirty-eight boards over the first three games in the series. The killer for Chicago was the turnovers they gave away in Game 3 without Rondo and the feeling is the adjustment will be that either Dwyane Wade or Jimmy Butler will be asked to control the ball up the court and become the main playmaker.
Improved speed from the Boston Celtics helped them overcome their challenges on the boards, but a bigger key may have been the seventeen shots they hit from the three point range. Players other than Isaiah Thomas stepped up for the Celtics and Brad Stevens will be looking for more of the same from Boston who are trying desperately to get back home with a 2-2 record in this First Round series.
The Celtics might be able to do that, but I am not happy having them as the road favourite with the Chicago Bulls dominating the boards as they are. If Boston are shooting lights out like they were in Game 3, they probably win the game, but I think the Bulls can respond to that setback the correct way and will be a little more mentally prepared to be without Rajon Rondo.
Chicago have covered on their last seven occasions following a straight up loss, while they are 5-2 against the spread in their last seven when coming in off a double digit loss. The Bulls are also 10-4-1 against the spread in their last fifteen home games against the Boston Celtics and I am looking for a response from the Game 3 defeat and I will take the points with the Chicago Bulls as a home underdog.
LA Clippers @ Utah Jazz Game 4 Pick: This is considered a really important post-season for the LA Clippers who have come close a couple of times over the last few seasons in making changes to the starting rotation by either trading away one of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan. Now the Clippers have to see what they make look like going forward as Griffin has been lost for the Play Offs with another injury during Game 3 when they took back home advantage from the Utah Jazz.
Chris Paul has admitted that Griffin was a huge part of the Offensive schemes the Clippers have got in place under Doc Rivers and there is simply no one else in the rotation that can come in to replace Griffin. That means the Clippers will have to make adjustments with just one days rest between games and that could be a difficulty against one of the top Defensive teams in the NBA.
The Utah Jazz won't be finding time to feel sympathy for the Clippers and their loss of Griffin as they have had Rudy Gobert for just seventeen seconds in the series. The absence of Gobert has seen the Clippers dominate the boards in this series and it was a number of second chance points that allowed them to steal Game 3 as the Clippers recovered from a pretty healthy deficit in that game.
There will be a feeling for the Jazz that they let Game 3 get away from them and some of the players have even described this as a 'must win' Game 4 to ensure they head back to Los Angeles with a 2-2 tie in the First Round series. However the Clippers have such a strong record in Salt Lake City where they have won ten of their last eleven visits that it makes it surprising that the Griffin injury means the Jazz are the 2 point favourite in Game 4.
It is so important for the Clippers that they will still have the edge on the boards without Gobert around and I think that is going to be a key for them. Desperation in the Utah camp makes them a dangerous team to oppose in Game 4, but the Clippers don't mind this match up and they are 4-1 against the spread in their last five games here. It is tough to lose Griffin, but the LA Clippers are experienced in missing key players in the Play Offs and have shown some character before and I will take them with the points to perhaps move to the brink of the Western Conference Semi Finals.
Monday 24th April
Milwaukee Bucks @ Toronto Raptors Game 5 Pick: This First Round series has been up and down ever since the Milwaukee Bucks opened it up with an upset of the Toronto Raptors on the road. The last four games have seen each team interchange wins with one another and that means a best of seven First Round series has become a best of three with Toronto holding home court advantage.
There has been an issue for both teams to find the Offensive and Defensive consistency through the first four games which may have made life a little easier. A bigger concern for both teams now is this game going into Game 7 as the Cleveland Cavaliers have already swept through their First Round series and getting plenty of rest before the Eastern Conference Semi Finals are due to start.
Despite a young roster, Jason Kidd is concerned that the Milwaukee Bucks looked like they were lacking energy in Game 4 and there isn't a lot of time for them to prepare for this one. They have to travel back to Toronto for Game 5 and only have one day of rest so Kidd has to use some of his Coaching skills to get the Bucks back on track after dropping the last game.
Toronto made a couple of changes to their rotation which paid off for them in Game 4, but the length of the Bucks continues to force some difficulties on the Offensive side of the court. The Raptors may have won Game 4, but they have only once scored more than 87 points so far in this series and Milwaukee do believe they have a chance in every game if they can produce Offensively.
I have played the 'under' in the last two games of this series and have been rewarded, but this time I am going to back Milwaukee with the points. The total points has actually come down by 6 points from the line for Game 3, which may have potentially gone too far, and so I prefer backing Milwaukee in what I anticipate to be a close game with very little between these teams.
Milwaukee have bounced back from a loss by going 7-2 against the spread in the last nine in that spot, while the Bucks are 6-1 against the spread in their last seven following a defeat by double digits. The lack of rest between games is a concern, but Kidd has shown he can get the best out of the Bucks following a loss and I will look for the points in this one to be competitive enough to allow them to cover even if the Milwaukee Bucks are on the wrong side of the final score.
Washington Wizards @ Atlanta Hawks Game 4 Pick: Things have gotten personal between the Washington Wizards and the Atlanta Hawks with a lot of jawing taking place on and off the court. Both teams have won their games on home court so far, but the pressure remains on the Atlanta Hawks who are trying to tie this First Round series before heading back to Washington for Game 5.
A loss would mean Washington have the chance to close the show when they return home later this week and so Game 4 becomes a pivotal one. The Hawks comfortably won Game 3 after starting much quicker than the Wizards and basically putting them out of contention before the game had really gotten going.
Washington are looking to make some adjustments and force Dennis Schroder into some tough positions on the court after the Point Guard was the dominant player in Game 3. John Wall and Bradley Beal continue to find their groove Offensively, but both will be looking to slow down Schroder and try and make him force the ball leading to turnovers which has blighted him at times this season.
The Hawks will have been very pleased with their performance in Game 3 and do believe they should perhaps be leading this series. That will give them confidence, but I still maintain that the Washington Wizards are the stronger team in this series and I am looking for them to make the necessary adjustments with Scott Brooks as Head Coach to make Game 4 much more competitive.
I like the fact that Washington have responded with a 5-1 record against the spread in their last six games following a double digit loss. On the other hand Atlanta have struggled to back up those dominant wins going 1-8 against the spread in their last nine in the next game following a double digit win.
The home team has dominate the recent games in the series between these teams, but I am going to take the Washington Wizards to bounce back from Game 3. They have the scoring powert that can make life difficult for Atlanta with a better start to Game 4 and I will take the points in this one.
Golden State Warriors @ Portland Trail Blazers Game 4 Pick: Prior to the beginning of Game 3, the Portland Trail Blazers had everything going for them and that saw the line shrink on the Golden State Warriors prior to tip off. Kevin Durant was ruled out, Steve Kerr is going to miss the rest of the series with an illness and Jusuf Nurkic was available for Portland.
So suffice to say they felt it was a huge blow to their chances to blow a lead against the Golden State Warriors and eventually lose by 6 points here to fall 0-3 down in the series. The Golden State Warriors are looking to complete the sweep on Monday where Nurkic will not be risked having felt soreness on his return from a long lay off in Game 3, although both Durant and Kerr are likely to still be absent for the Warriors.
There are issues that the Golden State Warriors have shown they can cope with and they are the better team and have more depth than Portland even with the likes of Durant, Shaun Livingston and Matt Barnes sitting out. The Warriors still have so much experience in their rotation and I think some of the emotion may have come out of the Portland building after dropping Game 3 even with so many factors looking to be in their favour.
Portland are talking up a big game and are saying the right things about not wanting to end their season on Monday, but I am not sure they really have that level of belief. Golden State will want to get things done and get their players some rest ahead of some big tests to come in the Western Conference and the Warriors are 12-5 against the spread in their last seventeen games in Portland.
This is a big number, you can't ignore that, but Golden State have the confidence behind them to go on and cover here.
Tuesday 25th April
Oklahoma City Thunder @ Houston Rockets Game 5 Pick: Despite a pretty shocking way to attempt to close out a game, the Houston Rockets managed to come through and win Game 4 and put themselves on the brink of moving through to the Western Conference Semi Finals. A 3-1 lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder and getting the chance to host Game 5 will mean Houston are the big favourites to close this First Round series and that could be important to how deep the Rockets are able to go in the Play Offs.
The reason I say that is because James Harden is carrying a bit of an ankle issue and he will have a few days of rest if Houston can win this game knowing the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies will have to play a Game 6 at least in their own First Round series. Harden is having some issues with the ankle that limited his numbers in Game 4, although his supporting cast, particularly Nene, stepped up to help the Rockets take a 3-1 lead in the series.
This series always looked like one where the two leading MVP candidates for both teams were going to be separated by the role players. I have mentioned the difference of having James Harden's team mates compared with the ones that Russell Westbrook has carried for much of the season, although Westbrook won't hear anything about that.
Westbrook shut down a reporter who was questioning Steven Adams about the struggles Oklahoma City have had when Number 0 has needed to go to the bench to catch his breath. While he doesn't want the narrative to try and put a wedge between himself and his team mates, it is clear that Oklahoma City will need Westbrook to put in some huge minutes if they are going to get this series back home for Game 6.
After the season he has had, Westbrook is certainly capable of helping cause an upset, but the Rockets have looked the stronger team overall for much of the series. Covering this number may be more difficult when you think Harden is a little banged up and the Thunder will likely give Westbrook longer minutes than usual, and it instead points to a potentially lower scoring game than the total points line suggests.
The last game did end up 'under' the total line, but it would have been way under if the two teams did not make such a horrific mess of the last three minutes. It is a risk backing against points when two Offensive teams like Houston and Oklahoma City meet, especially with the 'over' being 4-1 in the last five in Houston, but Harden's injury might mean the Rockets are not firing as they can.
It is a big number with that in mind and I can see Houston looking to play this like Game 4 and making sure they are at least contesting better on the Defensive side of the court and that could lead to a narrow win and a lower than expected Game 5.
Memphis Grizzlies @ San Antonio Spurs Game 5 Pick: Not many would have given the Memphis Grizzlies too much hope of heading back to San Antonio for a Game 5 after being blown out by a combined 43 points in the first two games of this First Round series. Now instead of just going back to San Antonio, the Memphis Grizzlies head there with a 2-2 tie in the First Round series and with the momentum of having two wins in a row.
They needed to overcome a huge effort from Kahwi Leonard in Game 4 which Memphis took in Overtime and it seems the veteran Grizzlies have been sparked by rookie Head Coach David Fitzdale's decision to have a major rant at the end of Game 2. The officiating has not changed as much since then as you would imagine to turn the momentum of the series, but the decision to bring in Zach Randolph as a starter has helped.
These are the key adjustments being made and it is up to Gregg Popovich to reach into his bag of tricks to turn things back in the Spurs favour. There will be no panic inside the Spurs locker room after the way things went in Memphis and being back on home floor should inspire them having beaten the Grizzlies each time they hosted them this season.
In saying that, the layers are giving nothing away if you want to back the Spurs who are being asked to cover a double digit number despite losing the last two games. That has a lot to do with the fact they have blown out Memphis in each game here during this series, but their games in the regular season were closer and the Grizzlies do feel they have made the right adjustments to make this a much more competitive series than most anticipated after Game 2.
Instead of the point spread, I will be looking for Game 5 to head over the total points line which should perhaps be in the 190's rather than the upper side of the 180's. The 'under' is 5-1 in the last six in San Antonio, but it is 3-1 in this series so far including 1-1 here in San Antonio. Both teams have shown they can go through healthy scoring patches against the other and both attack the paint to bring up fouls and I think they go over this number which I believe is around 4-6 points short of where I would have it.
Utah Jazz @ LA Clippers Game 5 Pick: The Golden State Warriors have to be returning home with a smile on their collective faces as they have swept through their First Round series and can enjoy watching the rest of this series. The LA Clippers and Utah Jazz have both been shorthanded during the series and I am not sure either is going to be feeling good about their chances of beating the Warriors in the Western Conference Semi Finals.
Blake Griffin is out of the Play Offs and the LA Clippers let a big lead slip in the Fourth Quarter of Game 4 which would have put them on the brink of the Conference Semi Finals. Instead they return to Los Angeles at 2-2 which means they have at least taken back home court advantage in the First Round series.
However Chris Paul was unhappy with his own play at a critical time against a Utah team who were without Gordon Hayward. Hayward's status for this game is up in the air as he is recovering from a bout of food poisoning, although a return for Rudy Gobert is important as the main paint protector for the Jazz.
There are some questions about both teams, but I do think the Clippers will be the ones who are thinking they could, and perhaps should, be 3-1 up in this series. They have blown Game 1 and Game 4 and Doc Rivers will be highlighting the fact they are in a best of three now and can't afford to make sloppy mistakes when in a position of control.
The key for the Clippers is to avoid the foul trouble in Game 4 that meant the likes of Jamal Crawford had to have their minutes restricted in the Fourth Quarter. Crawford, Paul and JJ Redick are huge for the Clippers with Blake Griffin out, while the potential absence of Hayward would be a huge blow for Utah despite overcoming setbacks already in the First Round series.
It is likely to be another game that comes down to the Fourth Quarter but only one of the four games in this series have ended with a difference of less than 5 points. With the spread as it is, it depends on whether you like the Clippers or Jazz to win outright to determine who you pick to cover the spread. In this case I think the Los Angeles Clippers can work their way to a win despite blowing Game 4 and I will look for them to head to Salt Lake City later this week with a win in Game 5.
Wednesday 26th April
Atlanta Hawks @ Washington Wizards Game 5 Pick: The home team is 4-0 both straight up and against the spread in this First Round series which means we come into Game 5 at 2-2, although the momentum does feel like it is with the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks overcame a slow start to take Game 4 at home and this is a team who feels they have had chances to win every game in this series so clearly will come in with a lot of confidence.
That confidence isn't misplaced as the Hawks have made the adjustments throughout the series which has put them in a strong position. They have exposed the interior Defense of the Washington Wizards in the last two games and there was even a big Dwight Howard performance in Game 4 which shows they have a couple of different options for Game 5.
Scott Brooks has made it clear that Washington need to play better when defending the paint, but Marcin Gortat is struggling to deal with the Atlanta bigs. Ian Mahinmi has been a miss in the rotation and Brooks has to find a way to prevent the Hawks being able to get what they want when they decide to make their move into the paint.
Another issue the Wizards are having is finding consistent Offensive play from someone not named John Wall or Bradley Beal. Wall and Beal have remained huge for Washington, but the bench have struggled and that saw Atlanta dominate the Second and Fourth Quarter in Game 4 which allowed them pull away for a big win.
The Hawks have won the battle on the boards in three of the last four games and my feelings that Washington were the better overall team have yet to play out. I won't persist with that and am going back to the pick I had from Game 1 and that was taking the Hawks with the points.
Atlanta are 1-4 against the spread in their last five visits to Washington, but they have played better than Washington with just one day rest between games. The Hawks have also got a strong 6-1 record against the spread in their last seven games off a win while Washington have not been able to pick themselves up effectively off a loss. This does look like a decent amount of points to give the Hawks who could easily be 3-1 in this First Round series and I will look for Atlanta to keep this one close.
Chicago Bulls @ Boston Celtics Game 5 Pick: When Rajon Rondo went down between Game 2 and Game 3, this entire series has seen the momentum shift from the Number 8 Seeded Chicago Bulls to the Number 1 Seeded Boston Celtics. A 2-0 lead after two games in Boston had made the Bulls a pretty strong favourite to progress, but they have struggled to create the right Offensive opportunities without Rondo and dropped both games in Chicago without cracking 100 points having scored 106 and 111 in Boston.
Now it does feel like the entire momentum is with the Celtics, although an outside chance remains that Rondo could perhaps return for Game 5. The more realistic scenario is giving Rondo a couple more days of recovery time and bring him in for Game 6 and that means the Chicago Bulls have to step up without him.
The emotional issue surrounding Isaiah Thomas and the passing of his sister has meant there has been a lot of sympathy expressed for him but the focus is now winning the series. That has seen Fred Hoiberg suggest to the press that the officials are missing obvious calls on Thomas when he is dribbling the ball, although Thomas himself is unconcerned and won't be changing his style.
Things have also become heated between two teams who have no love lost for one another. Jimmy Butler and Marcus Smart got into things during Game 4 and Butler followed that up with some big smack talk in the press conference after Game 4. It does feel the Chicago Bulls are feeling the heat though and Butler has to step up and prove things on the court to get the Bulls back on track.
Boston have made the adjustment to go small against the Bulls who have continued to hold the edge when it comes to dominating the boards. However they have been inefficient shooting the ball which has allowed the Celtics to take over the last two games with the Bulls shooting at less than 43% in the last two games and allowing Boston at least 46% from the field.
Three point shooting has been important for the Celtics to get back in this series, but I don't believe things are going to go in favour of the Boston without some sort of Chicago fightback. I did back the Bulls in Game 4 and came up short, but I think this could be a lot of points for them in Game 5 as Boston have struggled in the spot of a big favourite all season.
Boston will be dealing with the pressure of expectation this time too and the Bulls are 11-4 against the spread when they have had two days rest between games. Chicago are also 8-2 against the spread in their last ten road games and the road team has covered in every game in the First Round series and I will take the points and look for the Bulls to step up in this one and keep it close at the least.
Thursday 27th April
Toronto Raptors @ Milwaukee Bucks Game 6 Pick: This First Round series has been turned around and the Toronto Raptors have a chance to win three Play Off games in a row for the first time in their history. Doing that will move the Raptors ahead to the Eastern Conference Semi Finals where the Cleveland Cavaliers have been waiting for them, but the Milwaukee Bucks return home and are looking to at least force a Game 7.
The last two games have not been very good for Milwaukee who have not had any balance between their Offensive and Defensive sets. They have also been hurt by the move made by the Toronto Raptors to bring in Norman Powell into the starting rotation and it is Powell's Offensive punch which has helped give the Number 3 Seed another scoring option outside of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
It was Powell who helped the Raptors put up their best points tally of the First Round series in Game 5 when they blew out the Milwaukee Bucks thanks to 118 points scored. You have to think Jason Kidd is going to be making some adjustments to prevent Powell having another big game, especially as his own team have been struggling to score points consistently.
That means Milwaukee need to control the tempo of this game and try and make it a slog if they are going to beat the Toronto Raptors and move through to the Conference Semi Finals. The Bucks have scored just 76 and 93 points in their last couple of games which has seen them drop both and move from 2-1 lead in the series into a position where they can't afford another defeat in Game 6.
The spread is basically another pick 'em contest and picking a winner is not easy because I am anticipating a reaction from the Milwaukee Bucks. Instead I am going to focus on the total points line which has moved back up 3 points after a really high-scoring Game 5, but I think playing the 'under' in this series could be the right call.
Milwaukee will be looking to slow things down in this one and prevent Toronto running away with things and the last five games here in Milwaukee between these teams have all finished 'under' the total point line. In fact the under remains 11-4 in the last fifteen between these teams overall and I think this one will do the same with the expected tempo barring Overtime.
San Antonio Spurs @ Memphis Grizzlies Game 6 Pick: The home team has won all five games in this First Round series but that means the pressure is on the Memphis Grizzlies to hold serve if they want to force a Game 7. They have been beaten by double digits in every game in San Antonio in the series, but the Grizzlies have shown real heart and determination at home and being back there gives them every chance.
The Grizzlies have won all four home games against San Antonio this season and they will have full belief they can do the same in Game 6. However they are going to need their big players to step up again and make some big shots in what is going to be a highly pressurised situation.
Mike Conley has some really nice numbers in the last four games and he will be relied upon to make the plays that helps Memphis overcome Kahwi Leonard who has been producing some stellar numbers. Leonard was expected to be the face of the San Antonio franchise in the coming years as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili moved on, and he is certainly thriving in this First Round series although he would love to put in a game winning performance in Game 6 to underline his steps to superstardom.
Both teams have shown they can make plays throughout this series and I think picking the winner against the spread isn't easy. You have to consider Memphis with the 4 point start simply because of how well they have played at home against San Antonio this season, but Game 4 here went into Overtime and there is every chance that a Spurs win would see them cover, so perhaps picking Memphis outright as the underdog would make more sense.
However the one trend that has been producing winners is picking the game to go 'over' the total points line with that being 4-1 in the series so far. The Grizzlies are an under-rated shooting team who take more three point shots than ever before and they are hitting those efficiently enough in the series to put up plenty of points.
The last three in Memphis have all gone 'over' the total points line too and I still feel this number could be a few points higher than it is. With the way both teams have been shooting the ball, I will look for this Game 6 to surpass the total points number too and look for the Grizzlies and Spurs to produce another high-scoring game.
Friday 28th April
The Conference Semi Final series are not due to start until Monday, but there are now only three First Round series which are yet to be concluded after Toronto and San Antonio completed 4-2 wins on Thursday.
There could be three more completed series by the end of Friday night, especially as two of the teams on the brink of moving through to the Conference Semi Finals are favourites to win Game 6. I fancy one of them to get it done with all of the momentum they have behind them, but the other two First Round series could be forced in Game 7 situations and you can read on below to see which way I think the Friday Game 6 contests will go.
Washington Wizards @ Atlanta Hawks Pick: The Washington Wizards managed to hold onto themselves for just long enough to secure a Game 5 win over the Atlanta Hawks and make sure the home team has won each game in the series. They almost made a mistake in the final seconds of Game 5, but were strong enough over the last two minutes to just about see off the Hawks and now snapping the run of home wins in this series will move them through to the Conference Semi Finals.
Winning in Atlanta is not going to be easy as Washington have struggled in both games played here in the series. In fact the favourite had been 4-0 against the spread in the series prior to the Hawks covering in a narrow loss at Washington in Game 5, while the Hawks will believe they are justified favourites to win this game having had chances in all five games played so far.
Playing under the pressure of elimination is the one factor that you can't really work out as some teams will thrive and others will wilt. I do think the Hawks have shown they are still confident in the series and they have found the right formula to wins games in the series even if the execution wasn't quite there in the final two minutes of Game 5.
Bradley Beal and John Wall continue to perform at a high level and have sparked the Washington Wizards throughout the series. They were given some big time support from the bench in Game 5 which proved to be critical in a tight game, but Jason Smith might be missing for this one which might further expose some of the issues they have had protecting the paint.
That will be encouragement to the Atlanta Hawks as will be some of the better Defensive work they are doing against Wall. The Hawks have covered in their last five home games overall and it can't be ignored that Washington have a really poor 6-19-1 record against the spread in their last twenty-six games after having just a day of rest between games.
Atlanta have covered in the last three in this First Round series and I am going to back them to force a Game 7 in Washington on Sunday by winning this one and covering the spread.
Boston Celtics @ Chicago Bulls Game 6 Pick: The injury to Rajon Rondo looks to be the key moment in this First Round series as the Chicago Bulls have lost all three games since their veteran Point Guard has gone down. It is a 'long shot' for Rondo to return in time for a critical Game 6 for the home team and that puts more pressure on Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler to impose themselves on this game.
There are some questions about Butler's health for this game after he has not really been effective in the Fourth Quarter. Chicago are going to look to get Butler more of the ball in the Fourth Quarter and the All-Star himself has said that he is fine, but those questions continue to be at play as the Bulls have struggled to stay with the Boston Celtics.
Getting consistent Offense out of players not called Butler or Wade has been the problem for Chicago who allowed a strong Boston run in the Fourth Quarter to see Game 5 slip away. On the other hand, Boston overcame Isaiah Thomas having a rare really poor game and still managed to make it three wins in a row against the Bulls and with a chance to close the show on Friday.
The home team will be desperate in this one, but Boston won't be seeing anything new and have already won two games in Chicago during the First Round series. History is also going against the Chicago Bulls with a couple of First Round trends suggesting this will be finished in Game 6.
The first of those is that teams who have lost exactly three games in a row in the First Round have a poor history of covering, although being at home does make it 'easier' for Chicago. The second is that a Number 8 Seed who have lost both straight up and against the spread against the Number 1 Seed in back to back games are 9-20 against the spread in their next game and the Boston Celtics are playing just well enough to get the win in Game 6 to move past Chicago.
The favourite in this series is now 10-3 against the spread in the last thirteen in the series and the road team is 4-1 against the spread in the five games in this First Round series. It is going to take some momentum shift to see this series go back to Boston for a Game 7 and I am going to back the Celtics to cover on the road to move into the Eastern Conference Semi Finals that begin next week.
LA Clippers @ Utah Jazz Game 6 Pick: The LA Clippers are not only playing for their Play Off future in Game 6 in Salt Lake City on Friday, but this could be a big summer for the franchise if they are beaten in the First Round. For the last couple of seasons there have been some questions as to whether Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan can provide the core for a Championship winning squad, and going out in the First Round of the Play Offs is not going to quieten those questions down.
Losing Griffin to injury was a blow for the Clippers, but that isn't an excuse for them in a First Round series where Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward have missed significant time for the Utah Jazz. Despite the injuries where Gobert and Hayward had to miss the majority of Game 1 and Game 4, the Utah Jazz came away with wins in both before earning the upset in Game 5 to put themselves 3-2 ahead with a home game to come in Game 6.
The Clippers only have themselves to blame having blown the chance to move 3-1 ahead in the series with a Fourth Quarter collapse in Game 4 in Utah, before being unable to make enough stops in the Fourth Quarter in Game 5 and losing another one.
Gobert's return has been big for Utah who had the best Defensive team in terms of points per game allowed in the regular season. That has been so important for them because it has allowed some of the veterans to step up and make some big plays in the Fourth Quarter with Joe Johnson being head of that queue and really standing up to be counted.
Doc Rivers has said the Clippers have far from given up in this series, but they are under some significant pressure in Game 6 having played so badly down the stretch in the last two games. They do have some solid veterans of their own who have played in these pressurised win or bust games in the Play Offs before, but the Clippers will have to dig deep to force this series back to Los Angeles over the weekend.
The Clippers don't have a great record here against the spread, but they have won plenty of games outright in Salt Lake City and I expecting at least one big reaction from them. The road team is 4-1 against the spread in the First Round series though and I am going to take the points with the LA Clippers and look for them to at least keep this competitive even if they are unable to keep this First Round series alive.
16/04 Atlanta Hawks + 5 Points @ 1.91 Bet Fred (1 Unit)
16/04 Golden State Warriors - 14.5 Points @ 1.95 Bet Fred (1 Unit)
16/04 Houston Rockets - 7 Points @ 1.91 Paddy Power (1 Unit)
17/04 Indiana Pacers + 8 Points @ 1.91 Ladbrokes (1 Unit)
17/04 San Antonio Spurs-Memphis Grizzlies Under 189 Points @ 1.91 Ladbrokes (1 Unit)
18/04 Toronto Raptors - 7.5 Points @ 1.91 Ladbrokes (1 Unit)
18/04 Boston Celtics - 7 Points @ 1.91 Bet Fred (1 Unit)
18/04 LA Clippers - 8.5 Points @ 1.91 Sporting Bet (1 Unit)
19/04 Washington Wizards-Atlanta Hawks Under 212 Points @ 1.91 Paddy Power (1 Unit)
19/04 Houston Rockets - 8 Points @ 1.95 Betfair Sportsbook (1 Unit)
20/04 Cleveland Cavaliers - 2 Points @ 1.95 Bet365 (1 Unit)
20/04 Milwaukee Bucks-Toronto Raptors Under 196 Points @ 1.95 Betfair Sportsbook (1 Unit)
20/04 San Antonio Spurs - 3.5 Points @ 1.91 Boyle Sports (1 Unit)
21/04 Chicago Bulls-Boston Celtics Under 207.5 Points @ 1.95 Coral (1 Unit)
21/04 Houston Rockets + 2.5 Points @ 1.95 Betfair Sportsbook (1 Unit)
21/04 LA Clippers - 1.5 Points @ 1.95 Betfair Sportsbook (1 Unit)
22/04 Milwaukee Bucks-Toronto Raptors Under 196.5 Points @ 1.95 Coral (1 Unit)
22/04 Washington Wizards + 2.5 Points @ 1.95 Betfair Sportsbook (1 Unit)
22/04 Memphis Grizzlies-San Antonio Spurs Over 187.5 Points @ 1.91 Ladbrokes (1 Unit)
22/04 Golden State Warriors - 6 Points @ 1.95 Betfair Sportsbook (1 Unit)
23/04 Indiana Pacers-Cleveland Cavaliers Over 212.5 Points @ 1.91 Bet365 (1 Unit)
23/04 Oklahoma City Thunder-Houston Rockets Under 224.5 Points @ 1.95 Sporting Bet (1 Unit)
23/04 Chicago Bulls + 2.5 Points @ 1.95 Betfair Sportsbook (1 Unit)
23/04 LA Clippers + 2.5 Points @ 1.91 Paddy Power (1 Unit)
24/04 Milwaukee Bucks + 6 Points @ 1.95 Betfair Sportsbook (1 Unit)
24/04 Washington Wizards + 2.5 Points @ 1.91 Bet Fred (1 Unit)
24/04 Golden State Warriors - 7 Points @ 1.91 Paddy Power (1 Unit)
25/04 Houston Rockets-Oklahoma City Thunder Under 223.5 Points @ 1.91 Bet365 (1 Unit)
25/04 San Antonio Spurs-Memphis Grizzlies Over 186.5 Points @ 1.95 Coral (1 Unit)
25/04 LA Clippers - 3 Points @ 1.91 Paddy Power (1 Unit)
26/04 Atlanta Hawks + 5.5 Points @ 1.91 Coral (1 Unit)
26/04 Chicago Bulls + 7.5 Points @ 1.91 Bet Fred (1 Unit)
27/04 Milwaukee Bucks-Toronto Raptors Under 194.5 Points @ 1.95 Coral (1 Unit)
27/04 Memphis Grizzlies-San Antonio Spurs Over 189.5 Points @ 1.91 Paddy Power (1 Unit)
28/04 Atlanta Hawks - 2.5 Points @ 1.91 Bet365 (1 Unit)
28/04 Boston Celtics - 2.5 Points @ 1.95 Boyle Sports (1 Unit)
28/04 LA Clippers + 5.5 Points @ 1.91 Paddy Power (1 Unit)
First Round Update: 21-19-1, + 0.47 Units
April Final: 15-11, + 3.09 Units
March Final: 35-39-2, - 6.46 Units
February Final: 32-20-3, + 9.69 Units
January Final: 26-28-1, - 4 Units
December Final: 19-23, - 5.51 Units
November Final: 24-25-1, - 2.92 Units
October Final: 8-9, - 1.72 Units
Season 2017: 159-155-7, - 2.32 Units
Final Season 2016: 150-143-7, - 5.37 Units