Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:59 AM

Stretch Run Snapshot

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The NBA will ramp back up for a final seven-week stretch featuring roughly 25 games. While some teams will be openly tanking for the best chance at a Duke freshman, there are other teams desperate to improve their playoff position or qualify for the postseason in the first place. Here’s a look at where the value lies, who to fade and where to get in on the MVP race.

Fire at Will

Milwaukee Bucks: One of the top acquisitions at the trade deadline, sharp-shooting forward Nikola Mirotic, will finally debut after the break after dealing with a calf injury. Considering how seamlessly he’s expected to fit in if healthy, the Bucks are going to be able to put on the blinders and make a run at the NBA’s top record, which is the only way they’re getting through the East and into the Finals without the benefit of having won a single playoff series since 2001, falling in the first round eight straight times. The Bucks were 23-5 at the new Fiserv Forum coming out of All-Star, trailing only the Nuggets and Raptors in home winning percentage. They’ve won three of four over Toronto and own the tie-breaker in the East, so I’m expecting them to wind up the No. 1 seed in the conference when the playoff begins. Look for Giannis Antetokounmpo to chase the MVP, so I don’t see much to fade here, especially with a very manageable schedule.

Orlando Magic: After pulling within a single game of the Southeast Division lead, the Magic are eyeing their first playoff appearance since 2012 and have a schedule they can take advantage of to make It happen. Orlando had covered seven of eight entering Friday’s home date vs. the Bulls and play the Knicks, Hawks, Grizzlies and Cavs twice. With second-year forward Jonathan Isaac starting to hit his stride to help elevate Orlando’s level of play, the Magic need their questionable decisions to hang on to unrestricted free agents Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross to pay off in helping their young nucleus pick up some postseason experience. Improving guard play would provide a boost, but it appears that D.J. Augustin and rookie Isaiah Briscoe will have to hold the fort down since it’s unlikely Markelle Fultz will aid the cause this season.

Toronto Raptors: With the Bucks setting the pace, expect the Raptors to be hot on their trail as they look to emerge as the East’s top seed for a second straight season. With Kawhi Leonard leading the way and LeBron James finally in a different conference, this will be the Raptors’ best opportunity to finally break through with the franchise’s first Finals appearance. They’ll have to finish a game ahead of Milwaukee to finish No. 1 but will only be outside of Canada for 11 more regular-season games, saddled with a trip longer than two road dates only once. The Raps should be able to help newcomers Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin settle in since they’ll be home or across the street in Detroit between now and March 8.

Utah Jazz: Since the Western Conference is loaded, there aren’t many teams who can claim an easy schedule. The Jazz are an exception, having already finished up with the Warriors, Rockets, Raptors, Celtics and 76ers. They’ll get two games with the Suns, Grizzlies, Wizards, Clippers and Lakers and count home dates with the Bucks, Thunder and Nuggets as the matchups that look toughest on paper. Considering Donovan Mitchell was a slow starter this season and Rudy Gobert spent the break stewing over his All-Star snub on a tropical beach, Utah has a great opportunity to work its way up the standings after opening the unofficial second half of the season just one game up on eighth in the conference. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them wind up with a top-four spot and homecourt advantage.

Fade City

Charlotte Hornets: The Hornets hosted the All-Star game, but that will likely be the highlight of the season since the team has already started their crash and the hold they have on the Southeast Division title lead isn’t one they’re destined to cling on to. After dropping its last two games prior to the break, Charlotte has now lost four of five and is under pressure to start fast on a four-game homestand that will be the longest it has left. Seven of its next eight will be played at Spectrum Center, but the Warriors, Rockets and Trail Blazers are among the visitors. The Hornets have to play Golden State, Houston and Toronto twice more and will also visit Milwaukee and Utah. Kemba Walker is going to have to weigh whether he’ll stay put without the benefit of another playoff run, which doesn’t bode well for the team’s chances unless Michael Jordan can be really persuasive.

Cleveland Cavs: The Cavs seem to be well-positioned whenever a generational talent becomes available, so even though the Suns, Knicks and Bulls are fully engaged in tanking protocol, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Cleveland find a way to out-lose them all. Kevin Love is returning to the fold but isn’t likely to go too hard, so a combination of Larry Nance, Jr., Tristan Thompson, Ante Zizic and Marquese Chriss will help Love man the four and five. Rookie Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Knight, David Nwaba, Nik Stauskas and Turkish small forward Cedi Osman will play the bulk of the minutes at the point and along the perimeter, so you can expect a team that shows up and essentially scrimmages, putting on a good show before losing down the stretch. The Cavs entered Thursday’s home date with the Suns on a 4-23 run and won’t win another five games this season, which means they’ll drop over 65.

Indiana Pacers: After losing their first four games without Victor Oladipo, the Pacers opened February with six victories, covering in five of their wins. They had the Bucks on the ropes before being caught from behind in the fourth just before the break and picked up standout defender Wes Matthews in the buyout market to help fill the vacancy in their starting lineup. While those are good things, Indiana will play 13 of its final 23 on the road and will stop through Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Denver, Portland, L.A., Golden State, Oklahoma City and Boston in March. Their schedule next month is too tough to overcome, so count on the Pacers falling out of the No. 3 spot where they reside coming ou of the break, ultimately opening the playoffs on the road in either Boston or Philly.

Los Angeles Lakers: L.A. hopes to get point guard Lonzo Ball back from an ankle injury in March, which is important since another five-game trip awaits where it has to play in Toronto and Milwaukee. The month also sees the Lakers host the Bucks on March 1, followed by the Clippers, Nuggets, Celtics, Nets and Kings, Wizards and Hornets. None of those games can be deemed locks. The team’s April slate consists entirely of teams that would currently make the playoffs – OKC, Golden State, the Clippers, Utah, and Portland. Westgate has a will-they or won’t-they make the playoffs prop in play offering +120 odds if you’re still a believer while laying a -140 tag on ‘no’ since that’s currently chalk with the Clippers a full three games on them in the race for the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference. Although I fully expected the Lakers to make the playoffs when the season began, the challenges they’ll have to overcome over the next seven weeks makes it difficult to forecast a positive outcome.

Proceed with Caution

Boston Celtics: Considering Kyrie Irving is feuding with teammates and he just spent the entire All-Star Weekend seemingly plotting joining forces with good friend Kevin Durant, a lack of harmony may become insurmountable for the team that has now been replaced as the Eastern Conference favorite by the Raptors and Bucks (2/1), coming into Thursday’s resumption of action, coming in with 11/4 odds. Irving has said that he and backup Terry Rozier no have a contentious dynamic since they’re fighting for minutes, so it remains to be seen whether this is a situation that Brad Stevens can help boss Dany Ainge salvage. There are reasons to like Boston, from Al Horford’s great form and good health to the fact Gordon Hayward is clearly also feeling more comfortable than he did trying to regain his rhythm at the start of the season, but the schedule works against them. Of the Celtics’ final 24 games, 14 will come on the road. Portland, Houston, Sacramento, Denver and San Antonio will all make its only trips into TD Garden, so the home slate isn’t an easy one. It’s hard to imagine Boston finishing ahead of even Philadelphia in the Atlantic, much less Toronto, so it is likely looking at a No. 4 seed.

Brooklyn Nets: While it’s hard to envision the Nets missing the playoffs after such a strong start, their first playoff appearance since 2015 isn’t guaranteed. It’s fantastic that Caris LeVert was able to get back before the break and he should be a factor in March and April, but a ridiculously long seven-game road trip awaits from March 13-28 with no pushovers on the dockets whatsoever. Brooklyn will then return home to face the Celtics, Bucks and Raptors in consecutive games before heading back on the road for a rematch in Milwaukee and a game at Indiana the following night. Getting to the finish line won’t be easy.

Denver Nuggets: Paul Millsap looks like he’s healthier than he’s been all season after being victimized by a broken toe and an array of ankle injuries. His surgically-repaired wrist has held up and it’s no coincidence that his final performance prior to the All-Star break saw him match a season-high with 25 points while adding 13 boards in a win over Sacramento. Isaiah Thomas has also debuted and promises to be an asset off the bench behind Jamal Murray, who also missed a couple of weeks. Despite guard Gary Harris and wing Will Barton also being out for substantial portions of the season, the Nuggets have been among the Western Conference’s top teams and would ordinarily be worth backing now that they’re closer to full strength if it weren’t for the challenging schedule that awaits. Denver faces Oklahoma City, Portland, Utah, San Antonio and Indiana twice. The Nuggets have still got games at Golden State and Houston left and will be on the road for 12 of their final 20, which ramps up the pressure for them to do well on next week’s four-game homestand which features three teams that would currently reach the playoffs (Clips, OKC, Jazz) coming into town.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Although they were upset by the Pelicans in the final game before the break, the Thunder still open action after All-Star on an 11-2 run as they welcome Utah into town. The hope is that top perimeter defender Andre Roberson is able to return at some point and Markieff Morris was acquired via the buyout market to significantly upgrade front court depth, but the remaining schedule will be a chore. The OKC will play two games against the Jazz, Nuggets and Raptors in addition to single game with the 76ers, Warriors , Rockets and a season-finale at the Bucks. Although Paul George is a legitimate MVP candidate, Russell Westbrook’s shooting woes make it difficult to feel very comfortable expecting Oklahoma City to seamlessly manage the final quarter of the schedule well enough to pass Golden State or Denver in the standings in order to secure homecourt advantage.

MVP Race

Westgate’s NBA MVP odds has Antetokoumpo and James Harden as co-favorites (10/11). Paul George, who hopefully you got in on in December when he was a 250-to-1 shot instead of an 8-to-1 choice. He’s certainly made quite the push over the past six weeks and bears watching since he’s done such a nice job balancing out Westbrook’s shooting struggles while being inspired to similarly stuff the stat-sheet. While Antetokounmpo is my likely MVP, if you’re looking to get rich, I’d take a flier on Toronto’s Leonard, who is currently available at 50-to-1.

If the Raps have a great run against a manageable schedule and beat out the Bucks for the East’s top seed, Leonard could command a late surge of first-place votes with a great final few weeks, especially if he starts playing in back-to-backs. Embiid (30/1) is already dealing with knee soreness and Stephen Curry (30/1), LeBron (30/1), Kevin Durant (50/1) and Nikola Jokic (60/1) all have a ceiling, so I’d ride Kawhi for a big payday and put down a nice chunk on the “Greek Freak” to cover my bases since I think Harden’s usage rate will ultimately work against him when all is said and done.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA or e-mail him at [email protected]

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