Thursday, February 22 2024
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Group play, we hardly knew ye. After six nights of In-Season Tournament play thus far, the group stage has officially reached its final night. On Tuesday, 16 teams will play their fourth and final game of group play, and each of those games holds significant tournament implications.

Entering Tuesday, only two knockout stage slots have been clinched. The Los Angeles Lakers and Indiana Pacers have already advanced, and the Phoenix Suns will almost certainly join them. That still leaves five slots up for grabs, though. We’ll settle groups B and C in both the Eastern and Western Conferences, and afterward, we’ll determine who will win the East’s lone wildcard slot. While predicting exact point margins is impossible, we can at least start by picking the games themselves against the spread. 

The Bulls have now lost seven of their last eight. They just blew a 21-point lead to the Nets on Sunday. Alex Caruso and Zach LaVine are both questionable for this game, and considering how popular both will be on the trade market in the coming months, this team has no motivation to rush them back. Yes, Boston is banged up, but the Bulls are in a dark place right now. If the Celtics get hot from deep this could be a 20-point blowout pretty easily. The Pick: Celtics -12.5

The Hawks have won six of their past eight against the Cavaliers including a 2022 play-in game, and stylistically, that makes sense. The Cavs have bad defensive guards and great defensive big men who are at their best near the rim. Trae Young is great at exploiting those bad guards and taking free shots in floater range knowing that he’s quick enough to get around bigs if they start meeting him further away from the basket. The Pick: Hawks +5

The Heat have played 17 games this season, but only four of them have been decided by double digits. Miami plays close games, and that works just fine for the Bucks. Milwaukee has a 7-2 record in clutch games this season while sporting a league-best plus-35 clutch net rating. Damian Lillard alone has more points in the clutch (56) than the Heat do as a team (52) despite playing the same number of games. If this thing is close, Lillard will show the Heat what they missed out on when they failed to trade for him. The Pick: Bucks -3

Relatively straightforward pick here. Both teams have hovered around .500 all year. One of them is healthy and getting points. The other is still dealing with a number of injuries and giving points. Brooklyn’s home-court advantage isn’t robust enough to scare me off of a healthy underdog. The Pick: Raptors +1.5

The Hornets are truly terrible at basically every element of defense… except rebounding. The Hornets rank eighth in the NBA at defensive rebounding by pulling in 72.4% of available opportunities. New York’s offense revolves entirely around winning the possession game through offensive rebounds. Make that a level playing field and a surprisingly decent Hornets offense should have more than enough firepower to cover such a big spread. The Pick: Hornets +11.5

The Thunder are the NBA’s best road team this season with a 6-1 record, and this is a better matchup for them than it is for the Timberwolves. The Thunder have a healthy Lu Dort to throw at Anthony Edwards, but Minnesota is currently without Jaden McDaniels, its best defensive option against Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. If Rudy Gobert guards Chet Holmgren, he’s going to get dragged away from the basket, and if he doesn’t, that’s an uncomfortable perimeter matchup for Karl-Anthony Towns. The Pick: Thunder +3.5

The surprising Rockets are 8-1 at home, but 0-5 on the road. This is a road game, and it’s a dangerous one at that. No guard in the NBA stresses out weak defensive big men like Luka Doncic. The MVP candidate is going to draw Alperen Sengun into dozens of pick-and-rolls, and Houston just doesn’t have a good response for that given its personnel. It needs Sengun out there to score, but asking this roster to keep up with the Mavericks at home feels like a tall order. The Pick: Mavericks -5

The Warriors are far better defensively with Draymond Green, whom they will get back on Tuesday, but they still haven’t solved their De’Aaron Fox problem. The Kings are 7-3 with Fox in the lineup this season, and when he faced the Warriors in October, he scored 39 points in a game Sacramento lost largely due to poor shooting from his teammates. This game is in Sacramento, and while they may not admit it, the last thing the Kings are going to want is to miss out on In-Season Tournament glory to a Warriors team that just knocked them out of the playoffs. The Pick: Kings -2.5



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