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NBA Sunday Tipsheet: Sixers still searching for championship chemistry

Philly need Embiid

Indiana Pacers @ Philadelphia 76ers
Sunday, 19:30
Live on Sky Sports Arena

Joel Embiid’s prolonged absence has to be a growing concern for anyone invested in the fortunes of the Sixers.

He hasn’t played since the All-Star break. He’s expected back tonight, but the unexpectedly lengthy spell on the sidelines due to “knee soreness” must raise warries about their most important player’s fitness ahead of the playoffs.

His layoff isn’t the first they’ve had to deal with to one of their star players either. Philly have compiled a possible title-winning starting five over the course of the season, but getting them all on the court at the same time has proven to be difficult.

Since the move for Tobias Harris, they’ve managed to get the Embiid-Simmons-Butler-Harris-Redick line-up on a court just four times. They’ve only 15 more games after tonight before the playoffs start, but there’s clearly going to be a chemistry deficit with so many in-season changes and little time to play to together. Just look at their recent loss to the Bulls.

It’s not derailed their season, though if Embiid misses further time and his injury lingers into the playoffs, Philly will be vulnerable. They are well-placed for the playoffs and the talent they’ve accumulated could cause higher-seeds some anxiety come the knockout games, but that was the case last season too and they disappointed.

They can overtake the Pacers tonight for the third seed if they win. Indiana have continued to tick along since the break, but you’d be surprised if they can challenge the best teams in the East in May. Since they put together a six-game win streak at the start of February they have swung between wins and losses, with defeats to Milwaukee twice, Detroit and Orlando, followed up by victories over stragglers.

That’ll be enough to keep them in the mid-seedings in the East, but their closing run of fixtures features plenty of road games at playoff-bound teams. Once they get there you’d wonder how they’ll fare in any seven-game series.

This looks like exactly the kind of game the Pacers haven’t won recently. On the road, against a strong opponent, and with Philly in a position to leapfrog them, there’s motivation for both sides, but I’d tempted by the Sixers on the 5.5 handicap even though they’re only average on that score. They’re covering 60% of the time after losing the previous game, as they did at the Rockets but the doubts about their star center Embiid cause pause. Instead, I’d rather look at the under on the 221 points total, with Philadelphia having failed to top the number in their last six and Indiana a slower-paced team. Under on the total points is my preferred play on this game.

Heat firing for the playoffs

Toronto Raptors @ Miami Heat
Sunday, 19:30
Live on Betfair Video

The Heat remain in the hunt for the latter seedings in the East. Charlotte’s loss last night leaves them a game ahead of the chasers for the eighth spot with 17 games left on their schedule.

They’ve put together a winning streak just at the right time. Four straight wins and five in six – one of those against the Warriors and the only defeat a narrow road loss to the soaring Rockets – shows that Miami are still competing for the postseason berth, though many might wonder whether they’d be better served in the long run by switching off the rest of the season and aiming for as high a draft spot as possible.

They’re still competing though, and that’s what matters to us as Toronto head to Florida. The Raptors have plenty to play for this season, but the real season for them will star in a few weeks. They’ve already got their playoff place confirmed and should hold on to the second Eastern spot at the very least.

All the usual caveats about the standard of their Conference apply, but that they’re just behind the Bucks considering the pace Milwaukee have set all season should be hugely encouraging for a fanbase and team who’ve traditionally struggled in the big games.

They’ve won ten of their last 13 games, though a pair of those losses came in the last week against Detroit and Houston. Further caution should be caused by their form on the handicap. They’ve covered just twice in their last ten games and tonight they’re resting Kawhi Leonard as well.

Also, despite their strong win-loss record, they own one of the weaker records in the league on the road against the number. Meanwhile, Miami have covered in five of their last six and and are 7-3 in the last ten. This game is pretty much a toss-up according to the line. I’d prefer to be getting a point or more than the 1.5 the Heat are getting, but the trends are too strong to go against them here. The home team +1.5 should be the play here.

Spurs run survives turbulent season

Milwaukee Bucks @ San Antonio Spurs
Monday, 01:00
Live on Betfair Video

We’ve discussed before the Spurs’ recent struggles – you might think there’s a comparison to be drawn with their Premier League namesakes, but the West Texas-based team wouldn’t even be considered top-six quality the way this season has gone.

And bottle doesn’t even come into it. The Spurs lost one of their biggest hopes for the season before it had even begun when point guard Dejounte Murray’s season was ended by an ACL tear. That blow, coupled with Kawhi Leonard’s trade, made this season look more like a matter of survival while they tried to build new team chemistry with the arrival of DeMar DeRozan. They’ve endured peaks and troughs, but seem to be coming out the other end with their 20-year playoff streak intact and the future looking brighter than it did at the start of this campaign. They can even move up the seedings if they find a streak of form to close the season.

Milwaukee aren’t the ideal opponents to start that against, though they have shown signs of weakness recently, losing two in a row for the first time this season in the week just past, the second coming away at Phoenix of all teams.

That loss means the Suns – the worst team by some distance in the West – are the only team this season to beat Giannis Antetokounmpo’s side twice this season. Those hoping the Greek Freak can lead them to the Finals might be feeling a tad nervous to see a blip like this now.

They shouldn’t though. The Bucks have won 15 of their last 18 games, and they have the league’s presumptive MVP, no mean feat given James Harden’s scoring. They look to be the top team in the East by a distance.

Going to San Antonio is always a tough ask though. The Spurs are among the top covering teams in the league on the handicap at home, and their task ought to be made easier by the Bucks’ home game against the Hornets last night. Still, Milwaukee have the second-best cover rate in the league away from home and haven’t struggled on quick turnarounds this season. I’d rather look at the total points in this with both sides trending under. The line should be set around 226.5 and I would expect it to be missed.

Source: US Sports