If you thought 2020 was wonky, just wait until you get a look at 2021. We are six game days into the new year, and on each of those days so far, at least one seven-point underdog has won outright. Not against the spread, outright. The Detroit Pistons beat the Boston Celtics. The Washington Wizards beat the Brooklyn Nets at full strength on their home court. The New York Knicks are beating everybody.
There are a number of possible explanations here. Playing without fans might be leveling the playing field a bit. The condensed schedule might be affecting players more than we anticipated. It might just be random chance. Until we have a better grasp on why these huge upsets keep happening, though, stay away from big favorites. Focus on games with more manageable spreads. Fortunately, Thursday’s national slate features two fairly close matchups. Here are our picks for the TNT doubleheader.
All lines via William Hill Sportsbook
We know that Brooklyn is going to be shorthanded. Spencer Dinwiddie is obviously out for the season, and Kevin Durant is still in quarantine. What we don’t know is how available Philadelphia’s best players will be. This is only Philadelphia’s second back-to-back of the season, but in its first, Joel Embiid was rested on the second night. Not coincidentally, it lost by 24 to Cleveland. That is Philadelphia’s only loss so far this season, and that holds up. The 76ers are a staggering 31 points better per 100 possessions when Embiid is in the game this season. His status for Thursday has not yet been announced, but there is a reasonable chance that he misses the game. The team as a whole is coming off an exhausting 141-136 win over the Washington Wizards, the NBA‘s fastest team. They are going to be tired.
It would be tempting to suggest that Brooklyn is due for a bit of regression after stomping the Jazz by 34 points on Tuesday, but nothing about the Nets’ performance looks too unusual. They shot below 39 percent on 3-pointers, and they won the turnover battle by only four. Yes, they dominated the Jazz on the glass, but if Embiid misses this game, there’s a fair chance they can do the same to Philadelphia. Five of Philly’s seven wins have come at home, a relevant number considering its terrible 12-26 road record last season.
Don’t make any decisions on this game until Embiid’s status is revealed. For what it’s worth, this is a nationally televised game, and the league would surely prefer it if Embiid participated. Daryl Morey has never had much of an issue with flouting league policy. If Embiid does suit up? Take the 76ers. If not? Brooklyn is probably the safer bet just based on the points you’d be getting on the spread. With Durant and Embiid out, this game would be a toss-up. For now, we will assume Embiid suits up in a big contest on national TV.
Welcome to the regression bowl! In one corner stands MVP favorite Luka Doncic, who is shooting a paltry 19.5 percent from behind the arc. In the other corner stands Michael Porter Jr., who, in theory, is killing Denver’s defense. The Nuggets are 12.9 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Porter off the floor so far this season, but that is due in large part to some ridiculously bad shooting luck. Denver opponents have made 47 percent of their 3-pointers with Porter on the floor this season and 36.3 percent with him off.
Neither of those numbers are sustainable, but Denver has better reason to expect immediate regression just based on the randomness of opponent shooting in general. Doncic’s struggles, while extreme, make sense. He’s a career 31.7 percent 3-point shooter. A stretch like this isn’t unheard of. Dallas falling to 28th in 3-point percentage as a team falls under the same umbrella. Right now, they have bad shooters. Playing without Kristaps Porzingis and Seth Curry has cramped their spacing significantly, and that, in turn, has allowed defenses to hound Doncic and limit his own shooting and playmaking. It’s an infinite loop. His life is harder, which makes the lives of his teammates harder, which makes his own life harder.
Nobody would mistake Porter for a good defender at this point, but opponent 3-point shooting tends to be somewhat random, and a date with a team shooting as poorly as Dallas in his return to action is exactly what the doctor ordered. Throw in home-court advantage and how ill-equipped Dallas is to defend Nikola Jokic and this Denver spread seems a bit low. There is value here.