The All-Star break is over and the trade deadline has come and gone, meaning the second half of the NBA season is officially underway. With just under 30 games left for most teams, every one counts, including today’s contest between the (37-17) Toronto Raptors and the (36-18) Houston Rockets (8pm EST, Saturday).
For both playoff-bound teams, this game could be pivotal. The Raptors, the second best team in the East are just coming off a rout against the conference’s top team, the Atlanta Hawks. Toronto sits just six games back of Atlanta and within striking distance of the #1 seed in the postseason. Houston meanwhile, is right there as well, just six games behind the Golden State Warriors for the top spot in the West.
Kyle Lowry and the Raptors’ Atlantic Division Dominance
Over the past few years, Toronto has slowly been rising to ascension as one of the best teams in the East. This year, all of that has culminated into their second place record in the conference and far and away first place standing in the Atlantic Division. In fact, no other team has a bigger lead over the second place team than Toronto’s 15 game mark over the Brooklyn Nets.
A large part of the reason for Toronto’s extreme success has been the emergence of Villanova standout and first-year all star, Kyle Lowry (pictured).
Lowry is in the midst of his best career year with averages of 18.6 PPG, 7.2 APG and 4.8 RPG. It is no coincidence that this goes hand-in-hand with Toronto being so far ahead in the very weak Atlantic division.
Take the Rockets to get the win -2.5pts on the spread
@ -115 betting odds with BetOnline sportsbook
Perhaps most surprising in Toronto’s success however, is their middle to bottom of the pack rankings in rebounds and assists per game, and total points allowed. Respectively, the Raptors rank 22nd, 20th and 21st in those three categories. The team is fifth in points per game however, a stat that no doubt has contributed to the winning ways this season.
It hasn’t just been in the Atlantic where Toronto has shined. In fact, the second best team in the East has only lost one of their four against the best team, defeating the Hawks by a combined 22 points. Additionally, Toronto is 12-7 against the West, with wins against the LA Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies among others. It is for this reason that the Raptors have the fourth best record in the entire NBA and why they will be a force in the postseason.
Houston and the MVP Case for James Harden
For the first three years of his career, the 25-year-old James Harden was the under-appreciated, undervalued third wheel to the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook show in OKC. His minutes per game were under 30, his points per game modest and his assists almost non-existent. But he was an important piece to Oklahoma City’s run at the trophy the past few years.
But after three seasons, something happened and Harden no longer had a place on the Thunder’s roster. As it turns out, this might have been both the biggest mistake for the Thunder and the best break for Harden, as with the Rockets, not only is he not an afterthought, he’s an MVP candidate.
Harden’s points jumped from just over 16 to just over 25 in his first season in Houston. His minutes per game also jumped from 31 to 38+. This was now his team and the takeover was evident.
This year, it all came together for Harden. He is shooting near a career-high 3P% and has career-highs in FT%, rebounds, both offensive, defensive and total, assists, blocks and steals per game. His 27.4 points per game is tops in the NBA and is nearly three points better than Anthony Davis, one of his top competitors for the MVP award.
Without Harden, the Rockets struggled. With him, they are one of the best teams in the NBA. You do the math. The guy is MVP-caliber and he’s leading his team to one of their best seasons in a long time.
Toronto Raptors at Houston Rockets Betting Picks Predictions
The Raptors travel to Toyota in Houston to take on a Rockets’ team that is jockeying for position in the tough Western conference. They are coming off of a win, a big win against the Hawks and have been one of the best teams on the road this year. The Rockets meanwhile, are coming off a loss but that doesn’t mean they aren’t heading in the right direction. Houston bolstered an already strong team with deadline additions including the buzzed about rookie KJ McDaniels.
The Rockets are primed to go far this year and a win against the Raptors would go a long way to showing why. The Rockets are a better defensive team and are not that far behind offensively (7th to the Raptors’ 5th in points per game). At home, they have an edge, albeit a slight one.
- Take the Rockets to get the win -2.5pts on the spread @ -115 betting odds with BetOnline sportsbook. They are -150 on the moneyline while the Raptors are +130 odds on the moneyline with the same bookie. Both teams have the talent to go far and both have the young rosters to back that up. Give it a few years and this could be a preview of the NBA Finals. Now, it’s just a pivotal game on what is left of a short schedule.
Marilee writes on NFL, MLB & tennis for USA Betting. Another area of her sporting journalistic expertise is pro wrestling. A native of Philadelphia and a big Eagles fan, she has been a sports writer for many major websites including Bleacher Report and Rant Sports. She started her journalistic career early, as sports editor for her college newspaper.