• There are eight games on the slate for this Thursday night in the NBA, and Hoop Ball is here to guide you to the games that you’re not going to want to miss.

    (*Quick note: I was recently asked, ‘what are the honorable mentions?’ The ‘honorable mentions’ are listed for you as a backup plan in case the listed ‘must watch’ games turn out to be duds.)

    The Honorable Mentions: The Trail Blazers look to take down the Spurs, a hobbled Bulls team faces off against the Nets and the Nuggets will go up against the Hawks.

    Now for the ‘must watch’ games on Thursday night.

    Toronto Raptors vs. Indiana Pacers

    Tip Time: 7 pm (est)

    Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN

    Player Matchup: DeMar DeRozan and Paul George

    The Raptors (45-21), a franchise that has never made it past the first-round of the playoffs, is poised to lock up at least the number two seed in the Eastern Conference. Toronto has gone 4-1 through their last five games, giving them a six and a half game lead over the third-seeded Miami Heat.

    With just 16 games left in the season, head coach Duane Casey has said that he will start resting his players with the playoffs drawing near. Casey stuck to his word, as he rested DeMar DeRozan on Wednesday against the Milwaukee Bucks.

    There was word swirling from the beat writers in Toronto hinting that either DeRozan or Kyle Lowry would get rested on Wednesday, and Casey chose to go with DeRozan. The game against the Bucks turned into a blowout, and that allowed Casey to rest Lowry in the fourth quarter.

    I would expect to see both guys in the lineup tonight, but be sure to stay close to Hoop Ball for updates on the status of these two players before tip-off.

    Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas is currently listed as ‘questionable’ for tonight’s game. The fourth-year center re-injured his broken (left) hand in Monday’s loss to Chicago. The good news is that the hand is not broken, and has been diagnosed as a hand contusion.

    “It feels better than last time,” Valanciunas said about the injury. “It’s not broken. I didn’t re-break it. The X-rays were negative. So, we’re going to take it day-by-day.”

    If Valanciunas is to miss more time, replacing him would be the 23-year-old Bismack Biyombo. When filling in for Valanciunas earlier in the year, Biyombo was putting up some very nice numbers averaging 6.3 points, 11.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. (For $4,200 on FanDuel, Biyombo becomes a great play.)

    The Pacers (36-31) currently sit seventh in the Eastern Conference standings and hold a two-game lead over the Pistons and Bulls. The Pacers’ schedule gets easier down the stretch, with just six of their last 15 games against teams with a record above (.500). Also, 10 of those final 15 games will be played on their home court.

    Indiana is a team that relies heavily on the production of Paul George, and rightfully so, the guy is a stud. In 67 games this season, George is averaging 23.4 points, seven rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. However, in the previous two meetings against the Raptors, George has averaged just 16.5 points while shooting a miserable 30 percent from the field.

    The Pacers have undergone a big change from last season to this season. Losing Roy Hibbert and David West in their frontcourt caused Indiana to search for both young and experienced talent to their roster to sustain a strong team without having to go through a full rebuild.

    Getting guys like Monte Ellis, Jordan Hill and drafting Myles Turner has given this team a depth of talent. Though the talent seems to be there, the production from George’s supporting cast is inconsistent but George still notices the potential that his team holds.

    “I see potential, a lot of potential for this team to go forward with momentum,” George said. “We got a chance to move up. With 15 games left, nothing is set in stone, we’re still right there.”

    If the season were to end today, these two teams would be duking it out in the first round of the playoffs. The series between these two teams  is currently split 1-1 through two meetings.

    Charlotte Hornets vs. Miami Heat

    Tip Time: 7:30 pm (est)

    Where: American Airlines Arena, Miami, FL.

    Player Matchup: Kemba Walker and Goran Dragic

    This is another game — that if the season ended today — these two teams would be matched together in the first round of the playoffs. There is also more importance to this game than some may actually realize, as these two Southeast Division rivals are separated by just one game at the top of the standings.

    “You know it’s really go time,” Dwyane Wade said. “You really understand every team is trying to play their best basketball right now. This is the time of the year where it gets harder. You have to take care of games.”

    The Heat (39-28) have quietly been flying under the radar, going 6-4 over their last 10 games. Wade, in his 13th season in the NBA, is still putting up All Star numbers averaging 19.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. Over his last 10 games he has been averaging 20 points, 4.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game at the advanced age of 34. The former champ is proving that he can still carry a team, even if he will need help to make any real noise in the playoffs.

    Heat’s center Hassan Whiteside is listed as a ‘game-time decision’ for this game as he is currently dealing with soreness in his left foot, but it appears that the Heat do expect him to play.

    The Hornets (38-29) are becoming one of my favorite teams to watch on NBA League Pass. Kemba Walker has been spectacular this season, averaging 21.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game.

    Charlotte is sitting just a half-game back of both the Celtics and the Hawks for the fifth and sixth seed. The Hornets have the potential to go from their current seventh-seeded position and jump to fifth within the final 15 games of the regular season.

    “If you look at the last 10 years, 75 percent of the home teams won in the first round,” head coach Steve Clifford said. “The only seeding that’s not where the home team didn’t win most was the 4-5 (matchup). We have to concentrate. That to me is the carrot.”

    These two teams have faced each other three times already this season and Charlotte currently holds the tie-breaker, winning two of those three games. So let’s just review what this game has at stake – first place in the division, owning the tie-breaker and moving up in the standings. Yeah, this is by all accounts a ‘must watch’ game.

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