Looking for an early candidate for the NBA's Most Improved Player this season? My choice entering the year was Portland guard C.J. McCollum. He didn't play much for the Blazers for most of last season as Portland was a very good team and had a lot of depth. All that depth is gone now as the team was gutted in free agency and trades. So if Damian Lillard isn't shooting, then McCollum will be. McCollum did finish last regular season strong, averaging 15.6 points in eight April games when he started to get major minutes. And he opened the 2015-16 campaign in style with a career-high 37 points (28 in first half) in a win over New Orleans.
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Heat at Cavaliers (-6, 196)
Some extra meaning here for Miami's Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as they will be fired up to beat old buddy LeBron James. The Heat looked solid in their 104-94 opening win over visiting Charlotte as Bosh played his first regular-season game since last February (blood clots) and had 21 points and 10 rebounds. It was the first time the starting Miami five of Bosh, Wade, Luol Deng, Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside ever played together in a game that counted. Cleveland was sluggish on Tuesday in a loss in Chicago but crushed the Grizzlies 107-76 in Memphis on Wednesday -- that result was the most surprising of all 14 games in my mind. Not that the Cavs won but by so much. LeBron James had just 12 points -- his back seems to still be bothering him a bit.
Key trends: The home team is 5-0 ATS in the past five meetings. The "over/under" is 8-2 in Miami's past 10 vs. the East.
Early lean: Cavaliers and over.
Jazz at 76ers (+6.5, 188.5)
Clearly, Philadelphia is going to be the worst team in the NBA again, but Jahlil Okafor is going to win NBA Rookie of the Year honors simply because of usage rate. The Sixers have no one else who can score. Okafor, the No. 3 overall pick, had 26 points and seven rebounds but got little help in a 112-95 loss in Boston. Twelve of the 15 players on the 76ers' opening roster had two years or less of NBA experience. The Sixers were without guard Nik Stauskas, their big offseason acquisition, due to back spasms. He might debut here. Utah lost 92-87 in Detroit on Wednesday and is going to struggle to score all year -- but defend like crazy. The Jazz will get reserve forward Trevor Booker back after he was suspended for the opener.
Key trends: Philly is 0-5 ATS in its past five at home. The under is 16-5 in Utah's past 21 vs. the East.
Early lean: Love the under. If this isn't the lowest-scoring game of the night, I'll be shocked. Take Utah.
Thunder at Magic (+7.5, 206)
Such a thing as a trap game this early in the season? If you believe they exist in the opening week, this likely will be one. OKC comes off a big home win over San Antonio on Wednesday in Billy Donovan's NBA regular-season coaching debut. I'd expect the Thunder to be a bit flat here. Be interesting to see Orlando crowd's response to Donovan. He was beloved at the University of Florida but also took the Orlando job in 2007, only to quickly reverse course and return to Gainesville. The Magic opened with an 88-87 home loss to the Wizards. The Magic had a chance to win in the closing seconds, but Nik Vucevic's jumper bounced off the rim as time expired. That was Scott Skiles' Orlando coaching debut.
Key trends: Orlando is 1-6 ATS in its past seven following a loss. The over is 4-1 in OKC's past five vs. the East.
Early lean: Take the points, go under.
Raptors at Celtics (-4, 205)
These two figure to battle it out for the Atlantic Division, which Toronto has won the past two seasons. The Raptors opened with a 106-99 home win over Indiana. Expect a big season from guard DeMar DeRozan as he will become a free agent next summer and reported to camp in great shape. He had 25 points vs. the Pacers. DeMarre Carroll had 14 in his Raptors debut. Boston beat the 76ers 112-95. Your Sixth Man of the Year betting favorite at sportsbooks, guard Isaiah Thomas, had 27 points and seven assists off the bench. Newcomer Amir Johnson added 15 points and seven boards. Forward Kelly Olynyk sat out his one-game suspension for his role in Kevin Love's left shoulder injury in last season's playoffs.
Key trends: Toronto has covered only two of its past 12 in Boston. The over is 12-4 in Toronto's past 16 on the road.
Early lean: Celtics and over.
Bulls at Pistons (+4, 199)
Chicago is off to a 2-0 start under rookie coach Fred Hoiberg. The Bulls won largely with defense on Tuesday against Cleveland, but Hoiberg's offensive scheme was on display in Wednesday's 115-100 win in Brooklyn. Chicago shot 53.8 percent overall and 50 percent from long range with six players in double figures. The Pistons are a surprising 2-0 following a win Tuesday in Atlanta and then Wednesday at home vs. Utah. It's the first time the Pistons have been two games over .500 since they were 33-31 in March 2009. However, some bad news: guard Jodie Meeks suffered a Jones fracture to his right foot and will miss 6-8 weeks.
Key trends: The underdog is 9-2 ATS in the past 11 meetings. The over is 9-1-1 in Detroit's past 11 at home.
Early lean: Bulls and over.
Wizards at Bucks (+1, 197)
Washington opened with a one-point win in Orlando on John Wall's floater with 12.7 seconds left. He's my dark-horse MVP candidate this season and finished with 22 points and five blocks. Coach Randy Wittman installed an up-tempo offense, but that didn't really work vs. the Magic as the Wiz had only 88 points. They played without reserves Alan Anderson (ankle surgery) and Martell Webster (right hip). Milwaukee didn't look good in its opener, losing 122-97 at home to a pretty sad Knicks team. Greg Monroe led the Bucks with 22 points and 14 rebounds. Milwaukee was one of the NBA's best defensive teams last year, but that wasn't on display against New York. To be fair, the Bucks did play the opener without Giannis Antetokounmpo, who served his one-game suspension for shoving Chicago's Mike Dunleavy in the playoffs last season. Milwaukee also played without guard O.J. Mayo, who has a strained right hamstring.
Key trends: The home team is 4-1 ATS in the past five. The over is 6-1 in Washington's past seven after a win.
Early lean: Bucks and under.
Hornets at Hawks (-6.5, 196)
Second of a back-to-back for Atlanta as it was at the Knicks on Thursday. The Hawks are the only team playing a second game in two days on Friday. Should Atlanta lose in New York, it might already be panic time. Charlotte lost 104-94 in Miami on Wednesday. Al Jefferson had 17 points but none in the second half. Jeremy Lin, Nicolas Batum, Frank Kaminsky and Spencer Hawes made their first appearances for Charlotte. Only Lin did much with 17 points off the bench. The Hornets and Hawks split four meeting last year. Two were high-scoring (both Charlotte home wins) and two low.
Key trends: The home team is 5-0 ATS in the past five. The under is 4-1 in Atlanta's past five at home.
Early lean: Hawks and under.
Nets at Spurs (-11, 205.5)
Brooklyn probably is the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference after Philadelphia. The Nets have Brook Lopez and not much else. They opened the season with a 15-point home loss to Chicago and played without starting point guard Jarrett Jack due to a hamstring injury. He's day-to-day so could go here. If not, it's Shane Larkin again. Brooklyn missed all nine 3-point attempts vs. the Bulls. San Antonio lost a great opener in Oklahoma City, 112-106. Don't sleep on Kawhi Leonard as an MVP candidate as he had a career-high 32 points and added eight rebounds. New Spur LaMarcus Aldridge struggled with only 11 points.
Key trends: The Nets are 9-4-1 ATS in past 14 vs. the West. The Spurs are 7-1 ATS in their past eight after a loss. The over is 10-2 in San Antonio's past 12 following an ATS loss.
Early lean: Spurs and over.
Timberwolves at Nuggets (-5.5, 210.5)
Denver certainly surprised me with a 105-85 opening win in Houston, never trailing. Rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay played like a rookie at times with 17 points but also 11 turnovers. The Nuggets played without forward Wilson Chandler due to a strained right hip. He won't need surgery but will miss 1-2 weeks. Center Jusuf Nurkic remains out as well. Minnesota rallied from a 16-point second-half deficit for a 112-111 victory at the Lakers. Ricky Rubio had a career-high 28 points and 14 assists. No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns had 14 points and 12 rebounds in his NBA debut.
Key trends: The Wolves are 4-9 ATS in past 13 meetings. Over is 11-1 in Denver's past 12 playing on one day of rest.
Early lean: Wolves and over.
Warriors at Rockets (-1.5, 217)
Presumably Houston will have Dwight Howard back for this one as he was suspended for that opening 105-85 home loss to Denver. I say presumably because Howard recently returned to practice off a back problem. Looks good for him to go, however. James Harden struggled in the loss to the Nuggets by hitting just 6-for-21 from the field (2-for-12 from long range). The Warriors beat New Orleans 111-95 on Tuesday night behind 40 from Steph Curry, but Golden State lost center Andrew Bogut to a concussion, and he won't play here. Of course this is a rematch of the West Finals, won by the Warriors in five.
Key trends: The Warriors are 7-3 ATS in past 10 meetings. The under is 4-1 in the past five.
Early lean: Rockets (Bogut loss matters) and over.
Lakers at Kings (-5.5, 211)
Los Angeles had no right losing to Minnesota on Wednesday as the Lakers were up 16 points in the second half. What's with Lou Williams attempting the potential winning shot at the buzzer instead of Kobe Bryant? To be fair, Bryant did miss his final eight shots. He finished with 24 points in the first game of his 20th season with the Lakers, breaking John Stockton's NBA record for the most seasons with one team. No. 2 overall pick D'Angelo Russell had just four points in his debut. Sacramento lost 111-104 at home to the Clippers on Wednesday -- that's the Kings' final home opener ever at Sleep Train Arena. DeMarcus Cousins had 32 points and 13 rebounds but as usual had little help. Rajon Rondo had four points, seven rebounds and four assists in his Kings debut.
Key trends: The Lakers are 0-3-1 ATS in the past four meetings. The over is 6-2 in the Kings' past eight overall.
Early lean: Kings and over.
Trail Blazers at Suns (-4.5, 210)
Portland blew out to a 43-17 lead after one quarter in its rout over the injury-ravaged Pelicans. It was the first time in 25 years a team has scored at least 43 points in the first quarter of a season opener. The Blazers' 27-point halftime edge was two points shy of being the largest halftime lead in an opener during the shot-clock era by any team. McCollum's 37 points were the second-most by a Blazers player on opening night, trailing only Kiki Vandeweghe's 47-point outburst at Kansas City on Oct. 27, 1984. Phoenix lost 111-95 at home to Dallas. The Suns will honor Steve Nash at this game by inducting him into the team's Ring of Honor.
Key trends: The Blazers are 4-0 ATS in the past four meetings. The under is 4-1 in the past five.
Early lean: Suns and over.
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