The NBA returns to London this Thursday evening, with a meeting between two historic rivals from the Atlantic division, though it is the future of Boston and Philadelphia as much as their past that makes this a game worth watching, writes Mark Kirwan....
"Boston's imposing record is built on the tightest defence in the league. Crucial to this is the youthful core who've emerged under coach Brad Stevens' following the trade of Isaiah Thomas and injury to Gordon Hayward. Marcus Smart, 23-years-old, has become a pest to the best players in the league, and helping Boston limit opponents to under 98 points per game."
Philadelphia 76ers @ Boston Celtics
January 11, 20:00 GMT
Live on Betfair Video and BT Sport 2
The Celtics come to London with a comfortable lead at the top of the East, looking unassailable as top seeds and on a six game winning streak. This run includes victories over Houston, Cleveland and a surging Minnesota, underlining their championship credentials.
Boston's imposing record is built on the tightest defence in the league. Crucial to this is the youthful core who've emerged under coach Brad Stevens' following the trade of Isaiah Thomas and injury to Gordon Hayward. Marcus Smart, 23-years-old, has become a pest to the best players in the league, and helping Boston limit opponents to under 98 points per game.
Rookie Jayson Tatum is delivering at a level that few could've expected so early, making him look like a steal at third overall. These youngsters have the winning experience of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford to provide stable scoring and leadership.
TONIGHT IS THE NIGHT! #NBALondon is here!— NBA UK (@NBAUK) January 11, 2018
: Boston Celtics x Philadelphia 76ers
: The O2 Arena, London
: 20:00, Tonight!
: BT Sport HD 2
And LIVE for FREE on the @BTSport Facebook page! pic.twitter.com/0LHn5Q6aL1
On the opposite end at the O2 Arena are another pair of budding young stars who are helping the Sixers emerge from the grim years of "The Process" for the better.
Though drafted in 2014, Joel Embiid feels like a rookie addition thanks to the injury ravaged time he's endured until late last season. Ben Simmons, Philly's 2016 draft pick who also missed his first season thanks to injury, has provided more than adequate support from guard in the absence of Markelle Fultz. These two players lead the Sixers in the major stats categories, Embiid scoring almost 24 points per game, and Simmons dishing out 7.5 assists.
Though they sit squarely on .500, the trends are pointing upward for the 76ers if Embiid can stay healthy. The transatlantic trip is an X factor in trying to read this game, and Philadelphia's form has been good of late, but I'd still take the defensive solidity of the Celtics to carry them here. Boston -2.5 looks a reasonable play.
Cleveland Cavaliers @ Toronto Raptors
January 12th, 01:00 GMT
Second and third in the East meet after the London early evening showpiece, with Cleveland continuing to muddle their way towards the postseason, while Toronto are showing a steely side that many thought they lacked.
Even with their disappointing results recently, it's hard to shake the feeling that the Cavs are simply biding their time until the playoffs. Isaiah Thomas and Tristan Thompson have returned from injury, but the team as a whole has not delivered as consistently as a team with LeBron James might.
As it is, Cleveland are too good to slip down the conference with James in the lineup, but too complacent to trust as a betting proposition generally. That they're behind Toronto could help focus minds in this game.
As the Cavs appear to be counting the days until the playoffs begin, Toronto are playing as though their reputation as playoff also-rans is one they intend to shake this year.
Recent weeks have seen Toronto build a five game winning streak - snapped only by a freakish last second play in their last game, an 89-90 loss to the improving Heat - that included two big wins over Milwaukee where they scored over 128 points in each game.
DeMar Derozan is their leading scorer, and the expectation on his shoulders will only increase with Kyle Lowry likely missing for the near future. Serge Ibaka's one game suspension following that Heat loss is also unfortunately timed, as the Raptors begin a tough run of games with this Cavs visit to Toronto.
Cleveland are one of the worst teams in the league against the spread, covering only once in their last nine games, but Lowry and Ibaka's absences mean Toronto can't be trusted either. I would look at Cleveland on the Moneyline market at [1.71], given the significant pieces missing for Toronto.
San Antonio Spurs @ LA Lakers
January 12th, 03:30 GMT
The Spurs continue to grind out wins despite significant injuries. They are snapping at Houston's heels in the Southwest, even though they've had to manage Kawhi Leonard's on-court time since his return last month.
Leonard is now out again, nursing a shoulder injury. Rudy Gay, Tony Parker and Danny Green are all unavailable as well, and yet San Antonio can plan for the postseason thanks to the second best defence in the league and LaMarcus Aldridge stepping up to lead the team.
The forward averages over 22 points a game, only Leonard of the rest of the Spurs roster breaks the 15 point mark, yet they look like a solid bet for the third or fourth seed in the West come playoff time.
The Lakers do not need to plan for the playoffs. Prior to their last two games against fellow strugglers Sacramento and Atlanta, the Lakers had lost nine games in a row, and are allowing opponents to score at 111 points every time they take the court.
Lonzo Ball has flashed his talent but some are starting to wonder whether his play will eventually justify the circus that comes with it. This week saw the club destabilised from Lithuania by Ball's father talking about coach Luke Walton's position. Ball, as a potential franchise point guard, is an extremely valuable asset in the NBA, but could become toxic for others if they've to worry about his father wrecking the team from outside.
In terms of their records against the spread if nothing else, these two teams are evenly matched. The line, set at four points, doesn't look insurmountable despite the injuries to San Antonio, so I would go with the better team to win and cover on the Handicap market at [1.89].