The In-Season Tournament is finally here! But what exactly does that mean? Well, uh, we don’t know. The NBA would like these teams to treat Friday’s matchups like playoff games. I’m just gonna go out on a limb and say that probably isn’t going to happen. The reality is probably going to be somewhere in between. Teams will go into games treating them like garden variety regular-season nights. If the games are close? They’ll likely get caught up in the competition of the moment and ramp up.
There’s no real way of predicting how these teams will treat these games compared to a typical regular-season matchup. Of course, if we don’t know the answer, neither does Vegas. You’ll never win an information war against the books, but there’s opportunity in the chaos of the new. So let’s make picks against the spread for Friday’s first set of In-Season Tournament games and hope that the uncertainty of it all gives us a rare edge against the books.
We have serious injury concerns on both sides here. Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen (who hasn’t yet played this season) are both questionable for the Cavaliers, while the Pacers may not have Tyrese Haliburton, who is also questionable. Here’s the difference: Cleveland can survive without a few pieces. Indiana just played Boston without Haliburton on Wednesday and lost by 51 points. Indiana went 7-19 without Haliburton last season. Donovan Mitchell can carry the shorthanded Cavs. No Pacer can do the same if Haliburton is out. So if you insist on making a pick based on limited information, go with Cleveland. The pick: Cavs -4.5
Look, you might just lose on talent here. The Bucks have two of the best players in the world. The Knicks don’t. But in case you haven’t been watching Milwaukee, now is the time to short the Bucks. At least so far this season, the playing style new coach Adrian Griffin has implemented makes no sense whatsoever. The Damian Lillard–Giannis Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll has been an afterthought in this offense. Griffin has brought Toronto’s aggressive, turnover-happy defense to Milwaukee despite the Bucks having one of the NBA’s best stationary rim-protectors in Brook Lopez. As of Thursday, Milwaukee ranked 29th in defense. The Bucks will probably figure things out eventually. For now? This team has no idea what it’s doing and I can’t in good conscience advise you to bet on it. The pick: Knicks +6.5
This is a dangerous matchup for Chicago. Nic Claxton’s injury makes the Nets, who are playing a fair bit of small-ball, vulnerable at the rim. But the Bulls aren’t a high-volume rim offense. They want to settle for mid-range jumpers, and that’s pretty hard to do with Ben Simmons, Mikal Bridges and Dorian Finney-Smith defending your ball-handlers. Alex Caruso is going to make life miserable for Cam Thomas, but Brooklyn’s transition and rebounding advantages give the Nets an edge. The pick: Nets +4.5
The Heat, in their present state, do not deserve to be favored by 9.5 points against anybody. Miami is currently ranked 26th in offense, 17th in defense and 27th in rebounding. Caleb Martin is ruled out, and while Jimmy Butler is probable, he’s dealing with a minor knee injury of his own. Washington’s early-season performance is as dreadful as you imagine, but the Wizards are exactly the sort of young team that might take pride in winning this tournament. The Heat won’t care. Take the points. The pick: Wizards +9.5
Oklahoma City has actually fared pretty well without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander lately. They went 7-7 without their star point guard last season, and they won’t have him Friday against the Warriors. Still, Golden State has seemingly exorcised its road demons this season, starting 3-0 outside away from San Francisco, and the talent gap here is too significant to ignore. Look into Josh Giddey props for this one, because he should have a big night running the show. In the game itself, however, the Warriors are properly favored. The pick: Warriors -5.5
This would be a pretty appealing line if we knew that Kyrie Irving and Maxi Kleber were playing. Both are questionable. Under those circumstances, asking any team to win at altitude in Denver with early-season conditioning is a tall order. The Nuggets have a net rating of +10.9 in two early home games. Luka Doncic can give their defense problems given its issues protecting the rim, but Nikola Jokic is used to defending in space. In a playoff setting in which Doncic will force the issue, this is a dangerous matchup. In the regular season, I pity the defense whose best tool against the two-time MVP is probably Grant Williams. The pick: Nuggets -7.5
You know what team will treat Friday with the urgency the NBA is looking for? The 0-5 Grizzlies. Their season is teetering on the edge of disaster 20 games before they’re set to get Ja Morant back. They have the NBA’s worst net rating. They’re so desperate for size that they just dipped into their mid-level exception for a midseason Bismack Biyombo signing. Their schedule gets tough again after this double-dip against the Blazers. These are must-win games for Memphis. There’s no such thing as a must-win game for the rebuilding Blazers. The pick: Grizzlies -1.5