Russell Westbrook rumors to the Boston Celtics

2020 NBA restart: Top 22 players headed to the Orlando bubble

2020 NBA restart: Top 22 players headed to the Orlando bubble

With players already filing into the Disney World Bubble for the NBA to resume this season, the league’s restart has a much more realistic feel to it now.

As much as attention will be paid to the 22 teams on site, the league’s restart will be no different than any stretch of the season when it comes to what matters most — the players. 

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And while some players have decided to not participate in the league’s restart for health concerns or to continue to stand up and speak out on societal issues that have taken center stage in recent weeks, the overwhelming majority of the league’s star power will be back on the court in the coming weeks. 

But because the league return will only consist of players from the top 22 teams, any kind of power rankings of the top players should be limited to — you guessed it — the top 22 players. 

Here’s a glimpse at the top players in the NBA who are part of the league’s return to play which will officially kick off later this month.

Click here for the gallery.

Celtics vs. Rockets odds: Best NBA picks as C's return home vs. James Harden and Russell Westbrook

Celtics vs. Rockets odds: Best NBA picks as C's return home vs. James Harden and Russell Westbrook

Two of the hottest teams in the NBA - each with one of the league's hottest players - meet at TD Garden Saturday night when the Houston Rockets visit the Boston Celtics in a nationally-televised matchup (8:30 p.m., ABC).

Houston (38-20) has won five in a row and features the high-scoring duo of James Harden (NBA-leading 35.2 points per game) and Russell Westbrook (27.3). It's Westbrook who has caught fire lately, averaging 32.3 points and shooting better than 54 percent from the field in his past 10 games. 

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Nearly matching Westbrook's scoring output the past 10 games is the Celtics' Jayson Tatum, who's a big reason the Celtics come in having won five of six, including their just-completed 3-1 trip west. Tatum has averaged 31.1 points the past 10 games is shooting 50 percent from behind the 3-point arc. 

The C's (41-17) return home to face the last of eight games in a row against Western Conference opponents. They've gone 5-2 so far with one of those losses coming at Houston - 116-105 on Feb. 11 - when Harden went for 42 and Westbrook 36. Tatum was held to 15 and it was the last time he hasn't reached at least 28 points since.

With Kemba Walker (knee) out again for Boston, the Celtics will need Tatum to continue his scoring binge. They come in as 1.5-point favorites. Here's a closer look at the showdown from a betting perspective, along with two NBA locks against the spread on Saturday night: 

(All odds provided by WestGate Superbook.)

Houston Rockets at Boston Celtics, 8:30 p.m., ET

Moneyline: The Celtics tend to get up for the good teams, having gone 9-2 in their past 11 games against potential playoff teams, averaging 117.6 points in those games with a +10.1 scoring differential. That and the home court, where they're 23-5 this season (Houston is 17-12 on the road) with the Garden crowd behind them, Tatum's recent heroics and the NBA's No. 3 defense (allowing 106.5 points a game), give the Celtics (-120) the nod, even without Walker. 

Point Spread: The Celtics are 6-1 against the spread in their past seven home games, 5-0 ATS against Western Conference opponents and 7-2 ATS in their past nine as a favorite. Look for payback from that loss in Houston as the C's cover the (-1.5) spread. 

Point Total: Despite the C's strong defense, the Rockets still have the No. 2-ranked offense in the NBA at 118.9 points per game and have the firepower in Harden and Westbrook. Jaylen Brown (20 points), Marcus Smart (17) and Gordon Hayward (12) supplemented Tatum with scoring help in Boston's 114-103 victory in Utah Wednesday and will have to again vs. defensively challenged Houston (allowing 114.1 ppg, 21st in the NBA). Look for the teams to go OVER the 230 point total. 

Pat's record 9-12, 42.8% success rate, picking the Celtics' moneyline, point spread and point total, pinch-hitting for Darren Hartwell (78-44-1 63.4% success rate).

Indiana Pacers (-8) at Cleveland Cavaliers, 8 p.m.: The Pacers have won six of eight overall and should end the modest three-game home winning streak for the Cavs, who are on the second night of a back-to-back after a 12-point loss in New Orleans Friday. 

Los Angeles Lakers (-8) at Memphis Grizzlies, 8 p.m.: The Lakers have won seven in a row and nine of 10 overall.  The Grizzlies have lost five in a row and six of eight and are on the second night of a back-to-back after a three-point home loss to the Sacramento Kings on Friday. Go with L.A. even with a questionable LeBron James (groin).  

Pat''s record 7-7, 50% success rate, picking NBA locks against the spread, pinch-hitting for Darren Hartwell (39-41-1, 48.1%)

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Rockets-Celtics, which begins Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.

Rockets' 'small ball' a big problem for the Celtics

Rockets' 'small ball' a big problem for the Celtics

When Brad Stevens is asked about the Houston Rockets and their “micro-ball” style of play, he can’t help but let out a small chuckle. 

“I get a kick out of the small-ball category,” Stevens said before describing the Rockets as, “Just a bunch of linebackers; tough, strong, physical, can’t post them. Excellent in doing what they do best and hard to play against.”

For teams who square off against the new-look Rockets, as the Celtics will Saturday night, don’t let what they lack in height fool you. 

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

When the teams met earlier this month, the Celtics were handed a 116-105 loss that was highlighted by James Harden (42 points) and Russell Westbrook (36) combining to shoot an efficient 52.4 percent (22-for-42) from the field. The Rockets more than hold their own on the glass before Boston eventually emerged with a 48-45 rebounding edge.

While much of the attention centers on the Rockets having a starting five void of a traditional post player, Stevens is quick to point out that what Houston lacks in the middle they more than make up for in other areas.

“They have a physical advantage at a lot of positions,” Stevens cautioned. 

That didn’t stop Gordon Hayward from tallying a near double-double against the Rockets on Feb. 11, tallying 20 points on 8-for-14 shooting to go with eight rebounds and six assists. 

“They obviously play a little different than just about everybody in the NBA,” Hayward said. “And with the guys they have, they make you...you have to be disciplined at both ends.”

And that’s a lot easier said than done, especially when it comes to prepping for the defensive challenge that awaits any team trying to limit Harden and Westbrook, a pair of unconscious scorers.

“It’s hard to reproduce what Harden and Westbrook, can really do, in practice,” Hayward said. “Certainly when you’re out there [in a game], it’s a little different. You want to try and make them shoot tough shots and try to not let them get easy looks and try to keep them both off the line.”

The Rockets and their diminutive lineup first made headlines on Jan. 31, when they defeated the Dallas Mavericks 128-121, becoming the first NBA team in more than 50 years to use no players taller than 6-7. 

That victory set into motion the most successful run of the season for Houston, winners of nine of their past 11 games. 

One of the more surprising results of the Rockets using a smaller lineup for longer stretches has been their improvement defensively.

For the 2019-20 season, Houston has had a middle-of-the-pack defensive rating (109.6) and ranks 15th in the league. 

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Still, in the past 11 games, Houston’s defense has taken off to where it ranks 10th overall (defensive rating of 109.8). 

Meanwhile, the Celtics defense in that same period has a rating that ranks eighth (108.7) in the league and is the NBA's fourth-best overall at 105.9. 

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Rockets-Celtics, which begins Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.