Houston - Memphis
In times past, the Boxing Day match-up of the Memphis Grizzlies and the Houston Rockets would have been a fascinating contrast of philosophies. With the two Western Conference rivals going in opposite directions this season, it could be a calamity in the making.
Houston, with an 11-4 record at home, proved their worth by routing San Antonio on Christmas Day after scoring 40 points in the opening quarter and shooting 52%. It was an exhibition by a team now averaging 106.5 per game. And significantly, it was accomplished on the road where the Rockets are a mere 8-7.
With a little more consistency, Houston could emerge as a genuine title challenger. They’re still only 18.00 for the championships and a great value at 8.50 to win the West despite being third in offensive efficiency. That they remain tenth on the defensive side is baffling when Dwight Howard is their anchor but there’s ample potential for that to improve, especially when the playoffs beckon.
Memphis, by contrast, are a shadow of their former selves, sitting 26th in defensive efficiency and relying on the January return of Marc Gasol to right their ship. With little frontcourt depth, even the Rockets’ slumping second unit shouldn’t help their cause. And given that these two teams are separated by a +12.3 points differential in Houston’s favour, the Grizzlies could be left like a bear with a sore head.
Portland – LA Clippers
The Portland Trailblazers share the NBA’s best record at 23-5 but they end 2013 with a severe examination of their credentials by facing three elite contenders inside six days. With Miami and Oklahoma City to follow, the test starts on Thursday when they host the Los Angeles Clippers who were bullied into submission on Wednesday by Golden State.
The Blazers average a league-high 108.4 points with the Clippers up to 105.0 but if there’s a potential indicator, it’s that LA is just 8-8 on the road. Expect points aplenty and another Portland boost.
Best bet: Take Houston on the handicap over Memphis.
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