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NBA MLK Day Betting Preview: Los Angeles Lakers at Boston Celtics 

NBA

As has become tradition, the NBA features games from early in the afternoon until the late hours of the night on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. All told, 28 of the league’s 30 teams will suit up for what has become one of the biggest dates on the NBA calendar. It is fitting then, that the biggest game of the night features the biggest rivalry in league history. The Los Angeles Lakers travel to Boston to take on the Celtics for the first time this year. It’s also the first time in years that the two teams can lay at least some claim to contender status in the same season. Additionally, it’s the first time LeBron has been back in Boston with a team that could win it all. There are storylines aplenty, and the game comes at an interesting time for both teams. Most encouragingly, stars Anthony Davis, Kemba Walker, and Jaylen Brown are all slated to return from injury tonight. This game has a lot, so let’s take a look at the state of the two teams, and what we might expect to unfold in this nationally-televised tilt. 

Heading into the New Year, the Lakers were 26-7, while the Celtics were 23-8. However, 2020 has seen these two teams start to move in different directions. The Lakers have gone 8-1 SU in January, with a net rating of +13.8. That’s a serious improvement from December’s 9-5 mark, a month in which the Lakers put up a net rating of only +4.6. The Celtics, meanwhile, went 10-3 in December, with a net rating of +10.3. 2020 has gotten off to a rocky start for Boston, who is 4-6 so far in January, with a worrying net rating of only +0.4. 

For the Celtics, the most likely reason for the regression is the combination of a brutal schedule and a series of injuries. First, Robert Williams went down. He is only a backup big, but for a team lacking in size, his absence seems to have uncomfortably stretched the rotation. 2020 began with a very difficult five-game, seven-day stretch. This itself was on the heels of a busy holiday period that saw Boston play the early game on Christmas Day, and four times between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. The warning signs were there right from the start in January. Even though Boston opened up with two straight wins, the performances were not strong. The Celtics beat Atlanta and Chicago, but had to expend a lot of energy crawling out from large early deficients. What has followed is the team’s worst stretch of the season, where Boston was 2-6 SU and 3-5 ATS, with a net rating of -1.0 in that span. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker have all missed some action during this stretch, and it’s clear that the team is struggling for cohesion when the three of them share the floor with Gordon Hayward. Marcus Smart has overcome a strange eye infection, but had a real adjustment period when he returned.

Perhaps most troubling for Boston is that the lack of size seems to be starting to tell. The team’s last four losses have come against Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Phoenix. These teams all have size advantages over Boston. Although Philly was without Joel Embiid, its physicality still showed against the Celtics. Andre Drummond, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Deandre Ayton have all had fantastic performances against this tired and small Celtics team. Things do not figure to get much better in this matchup. Anthony Davis is returning from a five-game absence just in time to wreak havoc on a weary Boston frontline. Last December, Davis faced Boston without Aron Baynes and Al Horford, who both missed the game. That matchup looks more like the one Davis will face tonight, including undersized center Daniel Theis. That night, Davis had 41 points on 17-for-34 shooting. He will be on a minutes restriction tonight, but it’s hard to imagine him not getting what he wants. 

Beyond Davis, the tandem of Dwight Howard and Javale McGee have filled in admirably over the five-games Davis missed, four of which were Laker wins. Add in the physicality of LeBron James, who is usually at or close to his best at the Garden, and this looks like a very difficult matchup for a Celtic team that clearly struggles against quality bigs. 

Boston does, however, have a bit of a scheduling advantage in this spot. The team has been home since Friday and will have had a full day off at home before this matchup. The Lakers, meanwhile, had a slightly annoying traveling start to this current five-game road trip. Los Angeles flew down to Houston for a game on Saturday nights, in which LeBron logged 35 high-usage minutes. Following that, the team had to fly across the rest of the country to get to Boston for this game. Three time zone changes in four days is not the easiest thing to deal with. One wonders how this scheduling quirk has impacted the team’s routine. 

Although Los Angeles is coming off a quality road win against Houston, Boston can take some comfort in the fact that the Lakers have not been all that good against top-level competition. Boston ranks 5th in the league in net rating for the season. Los Angeles ranks 2nd, but against other teams in the top six, Los Angeles is only 3-5 SU, with all three wins coming against Dallas. Losses to Milwaukee, Toronto, and the Clippers, should give Boston some hope here. This is a small sample size to be sure, but it does stand in sharp contrast to the Lakers’ 31-3 record against all other opposition. 

With Boston and Los Angeles both getting back some of their star players, this game promises to be an exciting one. The Lakers are currently three-point road favorites, and despite some serious matchup problems for the Celtics, it does feel like something of an overcorrection. Boston has lost three in a row, including two home games. The Lakers are 5-1 ATS over their last six games, with a ridiculous cover margin of +11.2. The Celtics will be desperate to bounce back in front of their home fans against their biggest rival. It remains to be seen if the Lakers can match the intensity after extensive travel. 

Boston has not found itself a home underdog too often over the last few seasons, but it’s unsurprising to see that the team is 12-3 ATS when getting points at home, with an average cover margin of +6.9 since 2017. This is a proud, competitive, and hard-working group and there’s no question that they will find motivation in being told they are underdogs in their own building, one in which they have started the season 16-5 SU. Los Angeles, meanwhile is 12-21 ATS as a road favorite since LeBron James joined the team.  

This should be an exciting installment of the league’s most historic rivalry and a great showpiece on one of the most important days of the NBA year.