One of the best stories in the first half or so of the NBA season was the Los Angeles Clippers' emergence as a title contender, two words that have never been mentioned with that franchise since the move from Buffalo.
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Los Angeles started an NBA-best 32-9, which included a franchise-record 17-game winning streak and an unbeaten month of December, only the 15th team to finish a full month without a loss. (The Miami Heat never had an unbeaten month on their 27-game winning streak.)
However, things have leveled off in a big way for Los Angeles since that point entering Wednesday's home game against Phoenix. The Clippers have lost four of five, went 7-8 in March (6-9 ATS) and are a .500 team at 17-17 since that tremendous 41-game beginning. So what are the problems? Chris Paul, who is still expected to re-sign with the team this summer, has missed 12 games in 2013 due to injury. Blake Griffin is playing with a sore calf and hasn't reached 20 points or double-digit rebounds in his past seven games. He's averaging 15.8 points and 6.7 rebounds on 46.6% from the field in his past 10, all numbers way down from Griffin's season averages.
Defensively, the Clippers are a solid No. 4 in the NBA in allowing 94.7 points per game, but they get killed from long range. Teams are shooting 37.6% from long range, which ranks Los Angeles No. 27 in the NBA.
All that said, things could improve quickly for the Clippers. Including Wednesday's game, they play just two teams the rest of the regular season that are playoff-caliber: the Lakers on Sunday and Memphis next Saturday. That Lakers game, in which the Clippers are the "home" team, will have Live Play-by-Play Betting at the book. If the Lakers miss out on the No. 8 playoff spot in the West, they can largely blame their Staples Center co-tenants. The Clippers are 3-0 this year against the Lakers (3-0 ATS) to win the season series for the first time in 20 years. They will go for the first sweep since 1975.
The Clippers are guaranteed no worse than the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference playoffs because they are Pacific Division champions (will clinch soon), but they still have designs on catching Denver for the No. 3 seed. The Nuggets lead Los Angeles by 1.5 games entering Wednesday. L.A. is 18/1 at Bovada to win the NBA Finals and 8/1 to win the West.
West's Top Seed on the Line Thursday
The book will offer Live Play-by-Play Betting on both TNT games on Thursday night: Bulls at Nets and Spurs at Thunder.
San Antonio enters play Wednesday with a game lead over Oklahoma City for the West's top spot. The Spurs clearly miss star swingman Manu Ginobili. They lost at home without Ginobili to a Heat team sans LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on Sunday and then on a last-second shot in Memphis on Monday. Overall, San Antonio's past five games all have been decided by two points or fewer.
Ginobili will miss 3-4 weeks with a hamstring injury, putting his availability for a first-round playoff series in jeopardy. If that series is against Utah, then it probably won't matter. If it's against the Lakers, that could be a major problem. Thus maybe it's a good thing for the Thunder or Spurs to finish No. 2. The Rockets are No. 7 and would be the current opponent for the second seed. Houston can score with any team but is terrible defensively.
The Lakers aren't going to finish higher than No. 8 if they make the postseason. Kobe Bryant showed Tuesday why teams still would fear L.A. in the postseason as he had his 19th career triple-double in a virtuoso performance in a big win over Dallas that all but put the Mavs' playoffs hopes on life support.
The Spurs are 2-1 against the Thunder this season (2-1 ATS) but were blown out in the lone meeting in OKC. Should the Thunder win Thursday, they would have the upper hand in a tiebreaker because they have a better record against the Western Conference than San Antonio.
Carmelo Does One Thing Well... and One Thing Only
You have to love the Knicks' Carmelo Anthony, as he doesn't pretend to be anything other than a shooter/scorer. Melo had a season-high 50 in Tuesday's win over shorthanded Miami, giving the Knicks the 3-1 season series.
Forget for a minute that the Heat are in late-season shutdown mode and sat LeBron and D-Wade again (as well as Mario Chalmers). Anthony didn't even attempt to get his teammates involved. He had 37 points before recording a rebound, assist, steal or block (he would eventually have at least one of each). That's almost hard to do.
Every single one of Anthony's 26 field-goal attempts was from at least 15 feet from the basket. His 18 makes from that distance was the most by any NBA player since 2006. Even more amazing, none of Anthony's touches on offense originated in the paint. It was Anthony's third career 50-point game, and for some reason he wasn't double-teamed. The Knicks have all but wrapped up the Atlantic Division title and won't fall lower than the No. 3 seed in the East, meaning New York would avoid Miami until the conference finals if both advance that far.
New York's game Sunday at Oklahoma City also will have Live Betting at the book. Anthony may need a few more 50-point games to catch the Thunder's Kevin Durant for the scoring title. Durant, looking for his fourth-straight title, is averaging 28.3 points to Anthony's 27.9. Melo does lead the NBA in points per 48 minutes at 36.0.
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