Three at 3: Thunder Can Exploit Rockets' Defensive Struggles

Zachary Cohen
Sports Illustrated

It was largely an Orlando fourth-quarter meltdown that prevented NBA Three at 3 from a perfect Wednesday, as Memphis won outright as a home underdog against Denver and Philadelphia's 100-94 victory in Indiana came in comfortably under the 216.5 total. That ran NBA Three at 3's success rate for the season to a fraction of a percentage point within 60% at 29-20-1, thanks in large part to a very profitable current run of 16-5 (76%). Not as much to choose from with only four games on tonight's slate:

1. Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder (+4.5)

8:00 pm ET

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Both the Rockets and the Thunder have gotten themselves back on track after poor starts to the season. Houston comes into this one on a three-game winning streak, and Oklahoma City has now won six in a row. The Rockets are also expecting further improvement, as the team just brought back assistant coach and “defensive coordinator” Jeff Bzdelik from a brief retirement. The Rockets are just 22nd in the league in defensive efficiency this year, but they were seventh a season ago. Some of that drop-off can be attributed to swapping Trevor Ariza for Carmelo Anthony, but more of it is that the team was simply missing its voice in Bzdelik.

But while Houston is destined to improve, it could take some time. And over the course of Oklahoma City’s six-game winning streak, the team has the seventh-best offensive efficiency rating in the league. The Thunder are not going to make it easy for the Rockets to figure out their defense on the fly. Oklahoma City also happens to have won and covered in two of the past three games in this head-to-head series. Even with Russell Westbrook out, the Thunder should be able to keep this close.

Pick: Thunder (+4.5)

2. Los Angeles Clippers at Portland Trail Blazers (Total: 224.5)

10:00 pm

While the Blazers are known for their ability to get up and down the floor and score with anyone, their games haven’t been as high-scoring as Vegas has expected over the past two weeks. In Portland’s last six games, the under has hit in five. Not coincidentally, the Blazers' defensive efficiency rating over that stretch (98.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) is the best that any NBA team has posted in its last six games.

Now the Los Angeles Clippers are in town, with a 6-4 record that holds some significance when looking at this total. Since the start of last season, the under is 21-10 when the Blazers play against a team with a winning percentage of 51% to 60%. That’s a pretty significant number, one that can possibly be attributed marginal winning teams scrapping to keep games close. Also worth noting in this one is the fact that both of these teams are in the NBA’s top 10 in season-long defensive efficiency rating. Another angle to keep in mind is that the Clippers have an excellent defensive backcourt. Even with Avery Bradley out with an ankle injury, both Patrick Beverley and rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander can defend at a high level. Beverley has always had a reputation as a feisty defender, but Gilgeous-Alexander’s length and smarts have translated to elite pro-level play much quicker than expected. His defensive rating this season is 100.9 points allowed per 100 possessions. That is a jaw-dropping number for a rookie charged with guarding the elite guards and wings of the Western Conference. Tonight, that duo will have the challenge of defending Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Portland’s backcourt is one of the most explosive in the entire NBA, and it is the reason this Blazers team is so potent offensively. But Beverley and Gilgeous-Alexander are going to make it difficult on them to get good shots, and figures to throw off Portland's offensive rhythm.

Pick: Under (224.5)

3. Milwaukee Bucks at Golden State Warriors (-6.0)

10:30 pm

At 10-1 straight up and 7-4 against the spread, the Warriors have topped expectations to begin the year. But the Bucks have also played some incredible basketball, getting off to an 8-2 start (6-4 ATS). Milwaukee’s offense has been completely revamped under head coach Mike Budenholzer, as three-pointers now account for a larger percentage of Milwaukee’s offense (40.3% of total field goal attempts) than every team in the league other than Houston. And the Bucks aren’t just taking, they’re making. Milwaukee currently sits at fifth in the league in team three-point percentage, which is something that will come in handy in this matchup with Golden State. In order to beat the Warriors, it’s important to have the firepower to hang with them—even though you don’t necessarily want to speed things up and make them comfortable playing their own game.

But even more important than the Bucks now having a modern style that can give Golden State trouble is the fact that Draymond Green and Shaun Livingston are out for the Warriors. Both players are capable of defending multiple positions at a high level—Green is arguably the best defensive player in the league—and Golden State’s switchability on defense is part of what makes them great. With no Green or Livingston, there will be minutes where guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton will have time to light up the scoreboard. For that reason, it’s hard to imagine Milwaukee not keeping this thing close. There’s also the fact that the Bucks are 5-1 against the spread this season when facing teams that allow 106.0 or more points per game.

Pick: Bucks (+6.0)

Overall Record: 29-20-2

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