Welcome to The Outlet, your weekly look at the best and worst in the NBA. In this week’s edition, a look at the Celtics’ defensive resurgence, DeMar DeRozan’s renaissance, the enigma of the Wolves, and why Jrue Holiday needs some respect put on his name…

TOP FIVE

Here are the five hottest teams in the NBA and their performance against the spread:

1. Golden State Warriors: With the Rockets’ slide and James Harden’s subsequent injury, the Warriors have a chance to gain a little separation atop the West and secure the No. 1 seed we all assumed they would obtain once again. The Warriors have notoriously been a difficult proposition for gamblers; they’re 18-21 against the spread, and before Thursday night’s win over Houston, Golden State had failed to cover in five of their past seven games. Everyone knows this is the best team, but they’ve also hit their stride since Steph Curry came back. Curry has averaged 48.8 DFS points (FanDuel) since his return.

2. Boston Celtics: The Celtics got a little rest after playing the most games in the league by far before Christmas, and the results have been palpable. Their defense is refreshed, as evidenced by their holding opponents to 38 percent shooting with a staunch 100.4 defensive rating since their come-from-behind win over Houston. The reputation on Boston is out, though. The under is just 19-20-2 this season in Celtics games.

3. Toronto Raptors: DeMar DeRozan is butting his way into the MVP conversation — at least toward the back of the top five. He’s been lights-out with the Raptors winners of eight of their past 10. DeRozan is averaging 39-5-6 per 100 possessions during that stretch, shooting an insane 53 percent from 3 (!!!). What’s most notable this season is that his off-the-dribble 3-point percentage is still woeful (30 percent via NBA.com), but his spot-up numbers are terrific at 38 percent.

Using him as in catch-and-shoot sets behind screens with Lowry passing? Is this what Raptors Nirvana is like?

 

4. Washington Wizards: Washington is 7-3 in their past 10, and have given themselves some cushion after falling into the mire. They’re not talking about it, which is good; this team melts down whenever they start to believe they’re good enough to win games on talent alone. Bradley Beal has to be an All-Star at this point, even in a surprisingly crowded Eastern Conference backcourt battle. He’s becoming one of the scariest scoring threats in the league.

You want to target him at home for DFS, though. According to Fantasy Labs’ tools, Beal beats his salary-based expectation by +4.9 fantasy points when playing at home, compared to just +0.8 on the road. Wizards players collectively rank dead last in DFS consistency, according to Fantasy Labs NBA wiz Justin Phan.

5. Los Angeles Clippers: Back from the dead like Lazarus. Blake Griffin returns in a thunderstorm of dunks and this team is rolling again, back in the playoff race. Lou Williams is averaging surpassing his DFS expectations by an average of +2.57 points per game. He’s been tremendous in keeping the Clippers offense afloat and with injuries to both Austin Rivers and Milos Teodosic. Williams should only get more backcourt minutes.

CLUTCH DRIVE: Eric Bledsoe

Since trading for Eric Bledsoe, the Bucks are 11-6 in clutch games (those that fall within five points in the final five minutes). It’s changed their whole dynamic, because of what Bledsoe brings to the table. Bledsoe has improved so much as a shooter, that if you surround him with gravity-pulling players, he can knock down mid-range daggers confidently. Watch the Pistons freak out over the Greek Freak’s pick-and-roll dive here, as Anthony Tolliver gives Bledsoe two full feet of space to rise and fire:

 

Bledsoe is also clearly feeling healthier than he has in years. He’s doing this routinely in clutch situations, getting his own miss and tipping it in off re-jumps:

 

The gravity that Middleton, Bledsoe, and Giannis create together wreaks havoc. Here, Giannis rolls to the rim, and Minnesota messes up the switch, with two Wolves going to guard Middleton popping up to the arc. Even though Jimmy Butler disrupts it, it’s a bucket. That’s how much space they have.

THE CONVERSATION: Minnesota Timberwolves

Speaking of the Wolves, they’ve been great lately. They are a mess of contradictions. Their defense has been abhorrent, but they’re starting to get it together on that end. Minnesota is 12th in defensive rating since December 15, and Jimmy Butler has been slaying it.

This is all set against the eye test and league discussions. There are whispers/rumors/whatever from league personnel about a disconnect between Butler and Towns. But in the one locker room encounter I witnessed after a win in Denver, Towns and Butler were joking around. This is a good example of how we tend to exacerbate and exaggerate locker room issues. Butler, who is still in his first three months with this squad, can be frustrated with a young player like Towns, without hating his guts. And by the time discussion circulates throughout the league of there being issues, it can blow over and the two can be in a totally different place. It’s easy to take word from folks who aren’t in Minnesota about a disconnect and say, “There’s trouble in Minnesota.” But that’s absurd. The Wolves are 24-15, with a great chance to get home-court in Round 1, Butler is playing lights-out, Towns has been a monster, and the defense is coming together.

On the other hand … I still can’t get past what their offense looks like. Their off-ball movement in pick and rolls is baffling. Their sets are rudimentary. And they are extremely reliant on Towns and Butler making absurdly difficult shots. Except … that’s what those guys can do. The Wolves rank fifth in offensive rating, despite being 29th (!) in 3-point attempts per 100 possessions. They just force turnovers, get tons of offensive rebounds, and make tough shots. Minnesota is No. 1 in shots in the paint, not in the restricted area (so floaters and post shots). It makes sense with their personnel, it’s just hard to believe it’s sustainable.

It’s why I’ll be keeping a close eye on how they do in the second half of the season — and what their playoff spreads look like, even in the first round.

One more note, a sign of what Vegas thinks: the Timberwolves, despite leading the division, are +250 to win the Northwest division, trailing the Thunder.

BUYING STOCK IN: Denver Nuggets

Denver is 7-2-1 in their past 10 against the spread, and 9-6 as a home favorite. They’ve adjusted without Paul Millsap, and Michael Malone’s gambles this season — playing Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee together in the starting unit after Millsap’s injury, lengthening the rotation to get guys more rest — have paid off. Nine of Denver’s 14 games in January are at home, many against teams severely under .500. They have daunting road games vs. the Spurs (2x) and the Clippers, but there’s a chance for them to go on a run and solidify a playoff spot just in time for the All-Star break and the likely subsequent return of Millsap.

SELLING STOCK IN: Orlando Magic

Big shock, right? The Magic are bad: 2-8 ATS in their past 10, and they just got clobbered by the Rockets without James Harden. They’ve only covered as an underdog +4.5 or more once in the past month. The Magic have no discernible direction, all their offensive players have fallen back to earth, and they can’t defend a soul. The early-season feel-good story has been (predictably) blown to smithereens.

GIVE THE MAN SOME CREDIT: Jrue Holiday

Let’s be done with the “Cousins and Davis don’t have any help!” narrative, OK? For the season, do you know who has the best on vs. off net rating differential for New Orleans? Jrue Holiday at +5.2 on, -11.7 off. He’s averaging 18-4-5 on 49-35 splits. His versatility is what unlocks a lot of what the two-big lineup is capable of. Via NBA.com:

DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis with and without Jrue Holiday
With/Without Holiday MIN OFFRTG DEFRTG NETRTG
J. Holiday is ON COURT 732 108 102.7 5.3
J. Holiday is OFF COURT 73 112.9 123.9 -11

Let’s be done with acting like the Pelicans are a two-man show.

The Rundown

A look at stuff you should have read this week…

My new podcast, Spread The Floor, launches this week. Make sure to go subscribe on iTunes, and we’ll have it up on other platforms soon.

Bryan Mears has a look at what the Harden injury means for bettors.

A betting guide to Snooker!

James Herbert’s profile of Brett Brown and his teaching style is terrific. There’s a lot in there about how he incorporated things like Netherland school styles and the like. Such a smart guy. We’ll have more on Brown next week.

Quartz has a look at five philosophers who will shape politics in 2018, and it’s both fascinating and terrifying at once.

I had a lot of thoughts after reading Jackie MacMullan on Kyrie Irving. Here’s one more. Taking risks is good, a lot of the time. But we haven’t really considered the possibility of how Irving’s decision looks if he doesn’t win a title with Boston, if the era is viewed as a disappointment. That’s hard to see because of how well they’ve started, but the Cavs remain a huge favorite to win the East. And even if LeBron goes West, the Celtics’ place in the Finals is far from certain. Forecasting not only what happens with Boston, but how we’ll reflect on Irving’s decision in five years, brings up all sorts of captivating possibilities.

Follow Matt Moore on Twitter
@MattMooreTAN