The second half of the season has finally arrived. After 3 long and dark days, the NBA returns from the All-Star break with 6 games on Thursday night’s schedule. There are a number of marquee matchups in store, but one of the late games between the Rockets and Lakers should carry plenty of intrigue.
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The Rockets aren’t quite home free in the playoff race quite yet, but at this point it’s tough to imagine Houston falling out. Following a lackluster start to the season, Houston has risen up to fifth in the Western Conference standings. The Rockets’ 33-24 record has them only 2 games clear of the eighth-seeded Clippers, but Houston seems more likely to rise further in the standings than fall at this point.
The Lakers, meanwhile, are on the ropes. L.A. entered the All-Star break with a brutal loss in Atlanta against a mediocre Hawks club to drop to 28-29 on the year. The Lakers are now 3 games back of the Clippers for that last playoff seed, and they’re 2 behind the Kings for ninth place. LeBron James said after the All-Star Game that he’s about to go into “playoff mode” a little early in order to help the Lakers qualify. We’ll see.
The following odds are courtesy of our live odds feed:
|2019 ATS Home||16-12-1||11-16-1|
|2019 ATS Away||10-18-0||14-15-0|
|2019 O/U Home||17-10-2||7-20-1|
|2019 O/U Away||12-14-2||15-14-0|
The Rockets have gotten some of their injured players back, so they’re primed for the season’s stretch run. Chris Paul came back a few weeks ago after a nagging hamstring injury, while Eric Gordon is back from a balky knee. Perhaps most importantly, Houston will get star center Clint Capela back for tonight’s game after he missed about a month with a thumb issue.
Capela’s return will push Kenneth Faried to the bench, which will be a good thing for the Rockets’ depth. Houston has been getting killed inside and on the boards in Capela’s absence, so getting the big man back is crucial if the Rockets are to make a deep run into the playoffs.
Regardless of who suits up around him, it’s safe to say that James Harden is going to keep doing his thing. Harden is averaging a ridiculous 36.6 points per game this season, which puts him about 8 points per game ahead of the next-best scorer (Paul George). He has scored at least 30 points in 31 consecutive games, which is the longest streak the league has seen since Wilt Chamberlain did so in 65 consecutive games back in the 60s. Harden is averaging 41 points per game during said streak.
Harden piled up 48 points in the last meeting with the Lakers back on January 19 in what was eventually a 138-134 win for the Rockets in overtime.
LeBron James has played in the NBA Finals in each of the last 8 years, so it’s safe to say he’s not used to having to fight just to make the playoffs. Hopefully he knew what he was getting into when he left the cushy Eastern Conference for the brutal West over the summer.
As it stands, the Lakers are on the outside looking in. They lost 4 of 5 going into the All-Star break, but they were on the road for all of those games. The lone win was a shocking victory in Boston thanks to a buzzer-beater from Rajon Rondo. This will be the Lakers’ first home game since a loss to the 76ers on January 29, so perhaps they can finally enjoy some home cooking again.
It’s hard to say that LeBron has been cruising considering he’s still averaging 26.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists on the year, but that’s just what he’s been doing, especially of late. With the playoffs hanging in the balance, I’d be surprised if James continued his deferential play. With the second half starting tonight, I’m expecting LeBron to be more aggressive over the next few weeks in seeking his own shot.
Whether the Rockets can handle that defensively remains to be seen. Houston can throw P.J. Tucker at him, but Tucker is too short to give LeBron serious trouble. Whether LeBron can carry this young team to a playoff berth remains to be seen. If he can’t, the Lakers will wind up being one of the more disappointing teams in the league once the season comes to a close.
This will be the fourth and final regular season meeting between the Rockets and Lakers. Houston has taken each of the first 3, including a 124-115 win in Los Angeles in the second game of the season. That was the same game in which we saw a kerfuffle between Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram that wound up getting all 3 players suspended. Harden had a rare 50-point triple-double in the second meeting with the Lakers back in December.
In the end, I’m not convinced the Lakers have an answer for Harden defensively. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, of course, considering he has been lighting the rest of the league on fire. The reigning league MVP is averaging 44.7 points per game across the 3 previous meetings with LAL on the year.
Harden could share the wealth more tonight with the rest of the Rockets now healthy, but I expect him to keep doing his thing. The Lakers should be able to keep this one close for 4 quarters, but I do like Houston to eventually pick up another win here. Betting on the Rockets to win the game outright at -150 isn’t the worst value. If you want a little more profit potential, betting on Houston to cover the 3-point spread would be a fine option.
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