The NBA, more than any other sport, offers more chalk than a 1950’s middle school classroom. The teams that are supposed to be good are good, the teams that are supposed to be bad are bad, and aside from a couple of moderate surprises, rarely do the standings defy expectations when all is said and done.
So now, a full week into the 2020-21 campaign, it is more than a bit jarring to see the standings look so out of whack. It could also make for some interesting opportunities for true believers – or those who think these early fast starts are more of a mirage than anything else.
In that spirit, today we focus on the three teams who bring a 3-0 record into play on Tuesday, all of which have been a surprise to one degree or another.
This is a line that would have been inverted before the season, but after an impressive opening night victory over the Bucks, the Celtics lost by 28 to the Nets on Christmas day and then dropped a heartbreaker to these Pacers two days ago thanks to a late and-one by Domantas Sabonis.
The Pacers, meanwhile, have been rolling, throttling the Knicks and Bulls before pulling out the W versus Boston. Sabonis has somehow improved on his All-Star campaign from a year ago, and joins Nikola Jokic as the only players in the league averaging 24 points, 10 boards and seven dimes per game. The other half of the Pacers’ twin towers, Myles Turner, leads the league b a country mile with 17 blocks. They are a formidable pairing.
The Celtics right now are just trying to figure out the best way to cope with the loss of their third and fourth best players. The dynamic duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been outstanding, averaging over 50 points combined, although Brown’s deep ball (23.1 percent) hasn’t started dropping yet. In a starting lineup that now contains two traditional big men and the somewhat inconsistent Marcus Smart, that matters.
Boston also needs to figure out which of its two point guards off the bench is better served playing a prominent role. Both veteran Jeff Teague and rookie Payton Pritchard played about half the game against Indiana, with Teague missing all six of his attempts and Pritchard hitting all five of his.
Imagining that last year’s Eastern Conference finalists might start 1-3 is a bit jarring, but when you consider that Victor Oladipo will be back for this one after sitting out Sunday’s came due to rest, suddenly a point and a half spread doesn’t look so daunting.
The Pick: Pacers -1.5
If the Pacers beginning the season 3-0 is a moderate surprise, Cleveland’s 3-0 start has to be considered a jaw-on-the-floor level shocker.
No, they haven’t beaten anyone great – home wins versus the Hornets and Embiid-less Sixers and a road victory in Detroit – but the manner in which they’re doing it has been impressive. For starters, their average margin of victory is 13.3 points, good for fourth in the league heading into Monday’s action. As Bobby Marks tweeted yesterday, they’ve also been playing a fun, efficient brand of basketball, with 94 assists in three games - first in the NBA – and second overall in points in the paint.
Enter the Knicks, who are coming off of maybe their best win since the Melo was in his heyday, defeating the Bucks by 20 points at MSG. New York has come out of the gate in all three games and competed hard, but Sunday was the first time their offense didn’t drop off in the second half thanks mostly to some hot shooting from behind the arc. The Cavs have been stingy on defense though, allowing just 100.3 points per 100 possessions, good for second in the league.
Injuries may be the deciding factor here. Both teams are banged up, with New York missing rookies Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin (plus the ineffective Dennis Smith jr), while the Cavs will be without Isaac Okoro, Kevin Love, Matthew Dellavedova, Kevin Porter Jr., and Dylan Windler.
The Pick: New York +3.5
Our last 3-0 team is the Orlando Magic, who just went into Washington for two straight and emerged with victories both times.
Russell Westbrook missed the second of those games, but it shouldn’t diminish what Orlando was able to accomplish. They entered the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game down 17, and could have been content achieving a split on the road. Instead, they outscored the Wizards 43 to 19 in the fourth despite only one made field goal from Aaron Gordon.
The revelation has been Markelle Fultz. Fresh of signing a three-year, $50 million extension, Fultz is averaging 20 a game on an effective field goal percentage of 51.0 – a number that would have been unthinkable as his time in Philly came to a close.
Fultz joins Terrence Ross, Evan Fournier and 2019 All-Star Nikola Vucevic as one of four Orlando players averaging between 17 and 23 points per contest. Perhaps most surprising, the Magic are running like hell, sporting the fifth highest pace in the legau entering play on Monday night.
The Thunder team they face off against is young and mostly an unknown quantity after several key contributors from last season are gone. That said, they’ve been feisty so far, defeating Charlotte on the road to start their season before losing to Utah last night on a Donovan Mitchell game winner. In Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (23.5 points, 8.0 assists), they have someone who should help them stay in most games, at least against non-elite teams.
Even at 3-0, Orlando isn’t elite, and five points is a lot to be giving on the road against a solid opponent. Oklahoma City is on the second half of a back to back, but they’re a young team and it’s early in the season.
The pick: Oklahoma City +5
Other NBA Games
Chicago Bulls (0-3, +5.5) at Washington Wizards (0-3, -5.5)
Both teams are desperately in need of a win, but of the two, Washington has much higher expectations, and they’re home. Give the points.
Golden State Warriors (1-2, -3.5) at Detroit Pistons (0-3, +3.5)
It took a game winner from Damion Lee for the Warriors to beat a Bulls team that had been dreadful in their first two outings. Has Golden State started to right the ship? The opponent is right for the answer to be a tepid “yes,” at least for the moment.
Toronto Raptors (0-2, +2.5) at Philadelphia 76ers (2-1, -2.5)
The Raptors at 0-3? It’s tough to envision. Still, Philly will have Embiid back, and they’ve won both games he’s played. This one figures to be close enough that the point matter.
Milwaukee Bucks (1-2, -5.5) at Miami Heat (1-1, +5.5)
The Bucks don’t figure to start 1-3 and will be out for blood after a loss to the Knicks, but the Heat looked fantastic on Christmas after a sluggish opening night loss to Orlando. They’ve also had four days off, which could be a gift and a curse. Stay away from this one, but if you must, take the Bucks.
Denver Nuggets (1-2, -3.5) at Sacramento Kings (2-1, +3.5)
The Nuggets owe the Kings one after a last-second loss on opening night that saw Jamal Murray make just one field goal and foul out before overtime.
Minnesota Timberwolves (2-1, +8.5) at Los Angeles Clippers (2-1, -8.5)
After suffering one of the more embarrassing defeats in NBA history to the Mavs on Sunday, one figures the Clippers will show up for this one. Even if Kawhi (questionable, mouth) misses this one, Karl-Anthony Towns is out, which should be all the advantage LA needs.
New Orleans Pelicans (2-1, +3.5) at Phoenix Suns (2-1, -3.5)
Two teams looking to establish themselves as a legit presence in the conference. Take the better one at home.
NBA Expert Picks
Pacers -1.5 @ -110
Knicks +3.5 @ -109
Thunder +5 @ -110
NBA Free Picks
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