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The return of the NBA is just days away now, after a long break due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the league starts back up Thursday with two games, including a potential Western Conference Finals intra-building matchup between the Lakers and Clippers, there will be an eight-game sprint to the final standings, before the playoffs start with play-in games on August 16 and 17, then the first round a day later.

In both the Eastern and Western Conferences, there are clear lines between the teams that are favorites, and the rest of the pack. In the East, the Milwaukee Bucks have odds of -190 to win the conference, according to odds on American Gambler. They are also Tom Sunderland’s pick to win the NBA title. The next closest team in the conference odds is Boston at +700, and then defending NBA champion Toronto at +800.

In the West, the Lakers (+140) and Clippers (+170), which look set to be the top two seeds and on different sides of the bracket, are clearly ahead of Houston (+750), with the rest of the pack at odds of +1200 or higher, according to several U.S. sportsbooks, such as Pointsbet.

For the two Texas teams, these final eight games will prove pivotal to seeding. Currently, there are four teams, Utah (41-23), Oklahoma City (40-24), Houston (40-24), and Dallas (40-27) within one win of another. But the Mavericks (+1800 to win the West) have three more losses than the two teams ahead of them, and look resigned to the seventh spot in the bracket, outside of the play-in game, but with a potential first round match-up against the Clipper on the horizon.

Everyone is excited to see this young Dallas roster in the playoffs, and especially budding superstar Luka Donĉić, who has taken the league by storm. In his second season in the NBA, and at just 20-years-old, Donĉić is averaging nearly a triple double: 28.7 points., 9.3 rebounds., and 8.7 assists per game.

Those are video game stats.

But can Luka Donĉić lead his team past Kawhi Leonard and the formidable Clippers? His best hope might be in the Denver Nuggets, who can still catch the Clippers for second seed. The Mavericks went 2-1 against the Nuggets this season, and 0-2 against the Clippers.

Houston might be the team best set up to give the top two problems in a second round battle, but the Rockets first have to get out of the first round. These final eight games could see them seeded anywhere from third to seventh, but they will probably be fourth, fifth, or sixth.

I think the big question is, does anyone have faith in Houston after so many years of playoff failures? The Rockets are +1600 to win the NBA title, so if you do, a couple wagers on them to win the Western Conference (+750) and the championship could prove lucrative, if they can finally play well for three series.

PREDICTIONS:

Milwaukee (-190) should win the East, while I will go against the trend and take the Clippers (+190) to defeat Lebron James and the Lakers.

One longshot play to win the East would be the Philadelphia 76ers at +1000. They have the talent to match up with any of the teams they will face, but it is a question of putting it together.

In the West, Donĉić could light up the playoffs, making the Mavericks possibly worth a small wager at +1800.

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