NBA Wednesday Tipsheet: Kawhi's Raptors a real test for new look Sixers

Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi's Raptors rampant in the East
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The Jimmy Butler trade looks to be working out for the 76ers, with their numbers and win total climbing in the Eastern Conference, but Toronto tonight will show if things have really changed in Philly, writes Mark Kirwan....

"True, they beat Memphis last time out, but the Grizz's form is plateauing after their hot streak. Other than that, they have not beaten a team over .500 in their recent run. They'll get a chance to put that right tonight."

Philly flat-track bullies?

Philadelphia 76ers @ Toronto Raptors
Thursday, 01:00
Live on Sky Sports Arena

Philly's run at the LeBron-less Eastern Conference is looking a hell of a lot healthier since they they made their move for Minnesota's lockerroom leech Jimmy Butler.

In ten games since moving for the former Bull, the Sixers are 8-2. It's not just wins though, it's his presence. With him starting, and JJ Redick back in the line-up, he's making more problems for opponents and space for teammates.

Ben Simmons' numbers are up, Redick's scoring nearly 19 points per game, and Joel Embiid is absolutely bossing it. 25 points, 13 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2 blocks per game are his return in the last ten. That's MVP-calibre stuff.

But there's a caveat. If you look at the teams they've put up these numbers against, (whisper it on Broad street), they're not all that good.

True, they beat Memphis last time out, but the Grizz's form is plateauing after their hot streak. Other than that, they have not beaten a team over .500 in their recent run.

They'll get a chance to put that right tonight.

Toronto have the league's best record. They're the first team to 20 wins while the next nearest has 16. That's a symptom of the oft-referenced weakness of their conference, but winning against mediocre teams is better than losing to them.

We've seen the Raptors do this in the East before - they finished first last year and flamed out of the playoffs - so it's always best to be wary of early trends, but they look really good with Kawhi and a change at coach.

Before Monday's loss to Denver they'd won eight straight. Leonard collected the East's player of the week award - there'll be a few more of those this season I'd wager - thanks to an average of almost 30 points and nine assists through Raptors wins over Memphis, the Warriors and Cleveland.

This game has the potential to be a wake-up call if either of these teams have become comfortable in their roles as favs. Neither side is especially good against the spread, but both are trending over as home and road teams respectively, and have shown they can make a big number like 229.5 when they play other offensively-minded teams. I'd take the over at [1.93] on the Exchange.

Mavericks buck expectations

Dallas Mavericks @ New Orleans Pelicans
Thursday, 01:00
Live on Betfair Video

Dallas have also gone 8-2 in their last ten, but the achievement is more impressive for them because expectations were so low for a team relying on youngsters as they are.

The run has them lingering around .500 and in playoff contention when they could've languishing with the Suns if some of the more pessimistic predictions were to be believed.

It's all the more impressive given the knocks many of their players are dealing with, rookie sensation Luka Doncic and second-year point guard Dennis Smith Jr among them.

The Pelicans, meanwhile, have continued their predictably unpredictable form. A loss away at Miami, a win at Charlotte, and a home loss to the Clippers at the buzzer in their last three games shows what an up-and-down year this is becoming for Alvin Gentry's men.

It's not for lack of offence. Besides their talisman Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Nikola Mirotic have made big contributions, while E'Twaun Moore and Julius Randle are also averaging in double-figures, and it's made them the second highest scorers in the league through the opening quarter of the regular season.

Defensively is where the problems start. They're among the worst in the league, and if they could just nudge up to an average team when they don't have the ball it would give their playoff hopes a real boost.

That said, they're generally a more reliable prospect at home than away, and with Dallas playing on limited rest, and despite another win and cover against the Blazers last night, New Orleans on the handicap at -5.5 appeals at 10/11 on the Sportsbook.

Spurs look rusty

San Antonio Spurs @ LA Lakers
Thursday, 03:30
Live on Betfair Video

The Spurs snaffled a much-needed win on Sunday against the Blazers. They'd won four of their previous fourteen games and had the Utah game last night - a 34 point shellacking in Salt Lake City - before this trip to the Staples Center, so getting one W at home before that tough road back-to-back counted for something.

The feeling you get is they're clinging to competitiveness by their fingernails in the Western Conference, and every win now buys them more time to try and get things right.

It's because of their lax defensive effort that they're in trouble. Being tough to score on was their trademark. They'd shut down better opponents regularly, but that image is gone along with Kawhi Leonard - at least for the moment - as Spurs games are going 15-8-1 in favour of the over so far.

The Lakers have been going under more often, largely because expectations have been so high with LeBron's arrival. They look to be finding their stride now with their new line-up.

They're enjoying a third run of three-or-more consecutive wins at the moment, and with their heavy scoring, they'll expect to make it four in four tonight, especially with the Spurs having to jet over from the Utah desert last night.

This is a tough call, but the Lakers covered 11.5 against Phoenix in their last game, and the Total Points line looks like a trap, with the home team likely winning this game without over-exerting themselves. They're 4-2 against the spread in their previous six as well, so the form is there.

I'd be inclinced to back the Lakers to cover a sizable -8.5 handicap given the quick turnaround for the Spurs.

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