- Rockets try to stay red-hot to kick off home stretch of regular season.
- The Timberwolves want to show they belong with NBA’s elite.
- Expert analysis for Friday’s marquee matchup, as well as straight-up picks for all 10 NBA games on tap.
The sprint to the top seed in the bloodbath that is the Western Conference resumes Friday (8pm et, ESPN) in Houston for the Rockets (44-13, 23-6 home), as they welcome in the Minnesota Timberwolves (36-25, 12-18 away).
Houston entered the midseason break with the best record in the NBA, with the sluggish Warriors still closely in tow. The chance to secure home court advantage throughout the postseason and force the path to the Finals to go through Houston might be the slight edge they need to pull off the upset over the heavily favoured defending champs from Golden State.
The Rockets are currently in after-burner mode, having reeled off 10 wins in a row and posting a healthy 18-3 mark since the calendar turned to 2018. They are powered by the odds-on favorite to win league MVP in James Harden, who’s pumping in over 31 PPG to go along with 9 assists and 5 rebounds per game. He’s been a wrecking ball. Aided by the standout play of backcourt mate Chris Paul and big man Clint Capela, the Rockets are an absurd 28-1 in the 29 games that the trio has played together this year.
Meanwhile, the Timberwolves are continuing their upward trend to respectability, and are in prime position to lock down a playoff spot for the first time since 2004.
It hasn’t always been pretty: this is a roster that looks great on paper, would do major damage in a video game, but somehow can’t put it consistently together to be considered a threat in the big picture. Their 5-5 mark over their last 10 shows just how they are trying to find that steady level of high-end play.
They go as far as Jimmy Butler will take them, while a pair of No. 1 picks — Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony Towns – try to up their game to elite status so the Wolves can do major damage come playoff time.
It should make for an interesting matchup that we could see in the postseason.
Straight-Up Pick: Rockets
Houston is a team on a mission, and these are the perfect type of tilts to show everyone the difference between legitimate contender and playoff team.
There are going to be some tremendous individual matchups to keep an eye on. The Wolves have arguably the best wing combination to at least try and slow Harden down. Butler has the strength to body him up, and Wiggins has the speed to not let him get through with a bull rush.
And when one of them is on Harden, you can almost certainly bet that the other will be on Paul. As well, Towns is a double-double machine, so it will be a test for Capela to hold his own on the defensive end, while exploiting KAT’s biggest weakness: playing defense.
Ultimately, this will come down to Houston’s more complete team running the Wolves’ stars down. The Rockets come in waves, and can feature premier point guard play for every minute of the game if necessary. The inability for Minnesota to generate any sort of offense from that sad sack bunch of arms and legs they call their bench (save for Jamal Crawford) will again be their undoing.
I see the Rockets leading wire-to-wire in this one, and in spite of Butler’s best efforts, the Wolves won’t overcome a slow start and Houston’s deadeye shooting.
More Straight-Up Picks (Fri. Feb. 23)
There are 10 other games on the NBA’s busy Friday-night schedule, including the sizzling Jazz, trying to stretch their winning streak to 12 in a row. Here are our additional straight up picks.
- Boston Celtics vs Detroit Pistons: Celtics
- Indiana Pacers vs Atlanta Hawks: Pacers
- Charlotte Hornets vs Washington Wizards: Wizards
- Milwaukee Bucks vs Toronto Raptors: Raptors
- Cleveland Cavaliers vs Memphis Grizzlies: Cavaliers
- Miami Heat vs New Orlean Pelicans: Heat
- San Antonio Spurs vs Denver Nuggets: Nuggets
- Los Angeles Clippers vs Phoenix Suns: Clippers
- Portland Trailblazers vs Utah Jazz: Jazz
- Dallas Mavericks vs Los Angeles Lakers: Lakers
The moneylines, point spreads, and over/unders for all of these games will be available by Tuesday afternoon. You can place a wager by visiting one of these sportsbooks, and you can learn about NBA betting in general by reading our beginner’s guide.
Don’t forget to leave your picks in the comment section, below, or on our Facebook page.