For much of this season, it looked like the Los Angeles Lakers made a mistake taking D'Angelo Russell with the No. 2 overall pick in last year's draft instead of going with Jahlil Okafor and especially Kristaps Porzingis. And while I still think Porzingis will be the better pro (not sold on Okafor yet), Russell is starting to show signs of what the Lakers saw in him -- and why they should play Kobe Bryant only a few minutes a night (to let the fans see him) so Russell can be the "guy." On Tuesday with Kobe out injured, Russell scored a career-high 39 points, the most for any NBA rookie this season and the most for any Lakers rookie since the franchise moved to Los Angeles prior to the 1960-61 season. And on Wednesday, with Kobe playing just 11 minutes, Russell added 24 points. Coach Byron Scott has kept Russell on a short leash virtually all season but that leash appears to be coming off. It's at the point in this lost season where that should happen. Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns has won every Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors this season, but Russell is off to a good start to steal that in March.
Pacers at Hornets (-3, 200)
Indiana ended a three-game losing streak with a 104-99 win in Milwaukee on Wednesday. Paul George had 15 points and a game-high 10 rebounds for Indiana, which had seven players score in double figures. The bench scored 21 of the Pacers' 31 fourth-quarter points. Charlotte won a second straight blowout Wednesday, 119-99 at Philadelphia. Kemba Walker had 30 points and seven rebounds. This starts a seven-game homestand for the Hornets. Charlotte has never swept a regular-season series against the Pacers but can with a win here. And the Hornets won the first two meetings in Indianapolis. The Pacers were held to 95 points in each.
Key trends: The Pacers are 1-6-1 against the spread in the past eight meetings. The "over/under" has gone under in 11 of the past 16.
Early lean: Hornets and under.
Suns at Magic (-12.5, 217.5)
Phoenix was in Miami on Thursday, no doubt losing again. Orlando thumped Chicago 102-89 on Wednesday. Nikola Vucevic scored 24 points and rookie Mario Hezonja, who is starting to get more minutes, added a career-high 21, He has started three straight games in place of an injured Evan Fournier, who maybe won't get that job back. Phoenix won the first meeting 107-104 at home on Dec. 9. But the Suns were respectable back then with Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. Phoenix has won two straight in Orlando.
Key trends: The road team is 5-1 ATS in the past six meetings. The over is 6-2 in Orlando's past eight overall.
Early lean: Magic and over.
Heat at 76ers (TBA)
About as easy as a back-to-back as you can ask for here for Miami, which hosted Phoenix on Thursday. Philadelphia lost its 10th straight game Wednesday, 119-99 to Charlotte. The Sixers have allowed 100-plus in nine straight games and more than 120 points four times during that span. Okafor sat out for the second straight game with a bruised right shin. Miami won the first meeting 96-91 at home on Nov. 21. The Heat have won 20 of the past 23 in the series.
Key trends: The Heat are 6-2 ATS in the past eight in Philly. The over is 7-2 in the Sixers' past nine overall.
Early lean: TBA for Okafor, who is questionable. I might take the points here -- I could see the Heat perhaps giving Dwyane Wade the night off.
Knicks at Celtics (-9.5, 210)
New York was blown out a second straight game Tuesday at home, this time 104-85 by Portland. Carmelo Anthony had 23 points and 10 rebounds for the Knicks, who have dropped 15 of 18. Boston won a 12th straight home game Wednesday, beating those Blazers 116-93. Isaiah Thomas had 30 points to lead Boston to its fourth straight win overall. The Celtics haven't won 13 in a row at home since 2008-09. Boston leads the season series 2-1 and has won two straight at home vs. the Knicks.
Key trends: The home team is 4-1 ATS in the past five meetings. The over is 7-3 in Boston's past 10 overall.
Early lean: Celtics and over.
Trail Blazers at Raptors (-5, 207)
Terrific point guard matchup here between somewhat overlooked All-Stars Damian Lillard and Kyle Lowry. I say overlooked because of the cities they play in and lack of national TV games. Portland lost by 23 in Boston in the second of a back-to-back on Wednesday. That ended the Blazers' six-game road winning streak. Toronto beat Utah 104-94 on Wednesday for its 11th straight home victory. Lowry had 32. Toronto won in Portland 110-103 on Feb. 4 behind 30 points from Lowry. Lillard had 27.
Key trends: The road team is 4-1 ATS in the past five meetings. The over is 4-1 in the past five.
Early lean: Raptors and over.
Wizards at Cavaliers (TBA)
First of an ESPN doubleheader and should have live betting at sportsbooks -- and could be a first-round Eastern Conference playoff preview. Washington won a fourth straight Wednesday, 104-98 in Minnesota. Bradley Beal, still on a minutes restriction, had 26 points off the bench. The Wizards' reserves outscored the Wolves' 64-18. Cleveland ended a two-game losing streak with a 100-96 win over Indiana on Monday. LeBron James had 33 points and Kyrie Irving 22. This is the final meeting of the regular season. Washington actually leads 2-1 and won in Cleveland on Dec. 1 by 12 and just beat the Cavs on Sunday, but LeBron sat that out.
Key trends: Washington is 4-0 ATS in the past four meetings. The over is 4-1 in the past five.
Early lean: Honestly not sure why the opening TBA here. A few Wizards are dealing with injuries but not John Wall or Beal at this point. Cavs will cruise. They aren't about to lose the season series or get swept at home.
Jazz at Grizzlies (-1.5, 194)
Utah dropped a fourth straight Wednesday, 104-94 in Toronto. The Jazz led by 12 in the first half. Gordon Hayward had 26 points and six assists. Rodney Hood was helped off the floor in the second quarter following a collision and didn't return. So he's obviously in doubt for this one. Memphis won a second consecutive Wednesday, 104-98 over Sacramento. Mike Conley scored 10 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter. Guard Tony Allen missed a sixth straight game with a sore left knee. Utah has won two very low-scoring games vs. Memphis this season, both in Salt Lake City.
Key trends: The Jazz are 4-0 ATS in the past four meetings. The under is 9-3 in the past 12.
Early lean: Grizzlies and under.
Timberwolves at Bucks (-4.5, 212.5)
Minnesota lost a second straight Wednesday, 104-98 at home to Washington. Towns had 14 points, 15 rebounds and five assists. Kevin Garnett, Nemanja Bjelica and Nikola Pekovic all sat out again and none seem close to returning. Milwaukee lost 104-99 at home to Indiana on Wednesday. Khris Middleton had 23 points to lead the Bucks, who have lost three of four. Michael Carter-Williams missed a second consecutive game with patella tendinitis and isn't expected here. Minnesota lost by 10 at home to Milwaukee on Jan. 2. The Bucks have won three straight overall in the series.
Key trends: The Wolves are 0-4 ATS in the past four meetings. The under has hit in 12 of the past 16.
Early lean: Bucks and under.
Nets at Nuggets (-5.5, 208)
Brooklyn lost at the Lakers 107-101 on Tuesday. Brook Lopez had 23 points before fouling out with 2:43 left. Thaddeus Young had 19 points and 15 rebounds -- I don't know why he wasn't dealt at the deadline. Denver ended a two-game skid with a 117-107 home win over the Lakers on Wednesday. D.J. Augustin had 22 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter. Brooklyn beat visiting Denver 105-104 on Feb. 8. The Nuggets have dropped four straight overall vs. the Nets.
Key trends: The Nets are 4-0 ATS in the past four meetings. The under is 5-1 in the previous six.
Early lean: Nuggets and under.
Hawks at Lakers (TBA)
Second ESPN game. Atlanta could still be a bit flat off nearly winning at Golden State on Tuesday, falling in overtime. Paul Millsap missed a wide-open 3-pointer with 24 seconds left in regulation that might have won it. The Hawks rallied from a 14-point deficit to force overtime before dropping to 0-4 in OT this season. You might see Kris Humphries debut here for the Hawks. He was just signed off waivers from the Suns. As noted above, Kobe played just token minutes in Wednesday's loss in Denver in his final visit to the city. Lou Williams missed it and could miss a week with a hamstring injury suffered Tuesday. Fellow guard Jordan Clarkson left in the third quarter with a knee injury but doesn't think it's serious. So Russell should get a ton of minutes again here, and you never know if Kobe will play with his bothersome shoulder. Los Angeles lost in Atlanta 100-87 on Dec. 4. Kobe had 14 points on 4-for-19 shooting.
Key trends: The home team is 5-1 ATS in the past six meetings. The under is 13-6 in the Lakers' past 19 at home.
Early lean: Wait on all those Lakers.
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