2021 NBA Playoffs betting preview: Predictions for every series

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The first round of the NBA postseason is upon us. With 72 games in the book for every team, we have large enough sample sizes to distinguish every team’s strengths and weaknesses. Matchups are extremely important when it comes to handicapping the NBA postseason, and teams will work to exploit those weaknesses of a team much more in a best-of-seven series than you would see in a single regular-season matchup.

Personally, I believe these numbers and statistics have much more value in the postseason than they do in the regular season. It is hard for a team to imprint its style on a single game in the regular season. There could be a poor shooting night, or some plain old bad luck. But when the opponent is the same for the course of a series, a team can usually press that advantage.

Without further ado, here are my betting previews for every NBA first-round series.

Odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook, as of Friday afternoon.

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Philadelphia 76ers (-1250) vs. No. 8 Washington Wizards (+ 730)

Washington put a bow on its incredible regular-season run with a win over Indiana and a berth in the Eastern Conference playoffs. However, now it must face the elite defense of Philadelphia in a best-of-seven series, and it’s hard to find where Washington’s offense is going to come from. The 76ers went 3-0 SU/1-2 ATS against the Wizards this season with a + 11.2 net rating (all three games were played prior to April, though).

The 76ers finished the season with the third-best defense in non-garbage time minutes, allowing only 108.2 points per 100 possessions. That unit only got better in the second half of the season, limiting its final 36 opponents to 106.3 points per 100 possessions, a full 6.8 points better than league average. Philadelphia is an opportunistic defense that is stellar along the perimeter and at the rim. The 76ers finished with the third-best defensive turnover rate (15.3%) while allowing opponents to shoot just 63.5% within four feet and 36.7% from deep.

Washington has been spectacular over these last 26 games to get to this series, but it has not been due to an elite offense. In fact, the Wizards have been quite average on that end of the floor during this run. They rank 13th in offensive efficiency (115.8) in non-garbage time minutes, 10th in rim shooting (66.5%) and 11th in 3-point shooting (38.0%), and a majority of their offense is generated inside the arc. They ranked 14th in frequency of attempts at the rim to close the regular season and second in frequency of mid-range attempts (41.2%). Those are areas of the floor in which the 76ers thrive defensively, especially when Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are both on the floor.

Washington got here with a defense that allowed just 111.4 points per 100 possessions over the final 24 games of the regular season.  They did so by thriving at the rim and beyond the arc: The Wizards gave up the second-fewest attempts at the rim during their run to end the regular season and the fourth-fewest perimeter shots. Their game plan resulted in Washington ranking 30th in frequency of mid-range shots allowed, but in today’s game teams prefer their opponents to take those shots -- and it worked for the most part. The Wizards allowed opponents to shoot just 34.9% from deep and they finished eighth in opponent effective field goal percentage (53.2%). However, there were two massive flaws with their defense.

The first was that despite allowing the second-fewest attempts at the rim, opponents to shot an insane 67.7% within four feet. The second, was that as they allowed mid-range shots, they went in! Opponents not only took the most mid-range shots against Washington, but they hit the fifth-highest percent of them (45%). Those mid-range numbers are especially troubling when you realize Philadelphia ranks fifth in frequency of mid-range shots (36.5%), fourth in mid-range shooting (45.1%) and has an elite mid-range scorer in Embiid.

Speaking of Embiid, what Wizards player is containing him? When Robin Lopez is on the floor, the Wizards allow opponents to take 42.5% of their attempts from mid-range and shoot 46.8% on those attempts. With Alex Len on the floor, the mid-range shooting numbers are just as bad (44.7%) and the rim shooting is worse (66.9%). Daniel Gafford has been Washington’s best center statistically, but he gives up nearly 3 inches and 50 pounds to Embiid!

It has been a good run for Washington, and Russell Westbrook has been dynamic this season. However, there is no realistic path to a series win here for the Wizards to take four games from the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference in my mind.

Series pick: Philadelphia in four

No. 2 Brooklyn Nets (-1430) vs. No. 7 Boston Celtics (+ 700)

Boston broke out of its late-season malaise to handle Washington and earn the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, but its reward is a Brooklyn team that handled the Celtics in the regular season.

The Nets went 3-0 SU/ATS against the Celtics this season with an average margin of victory of 15 points and a + 16.5 net rating. Those are some impressive numbers for Brooklyn, and the Nets were never whole in the three games they played against Boston. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant were together when they blew them out in December, Irving had James Harden when they won in March and neither Harden nor Durant were on the floor for the thriller at the end of April. If the Celtics could not handle this team when just two of their three best players were on the floor, what happens in this series now that the Nets are healthy?

There is no denying the greatness of Brooklyn when their Big 3 are together. With Harden, Durant and Irving are on the floor, they outscore opponents by 11.1 points every 100 possessions and have a 123.2 offensive rating. They are elite from every area on the floor. Those lineups shoot 67.9% at the rim, 52.2% on mid-range attempts and 39.7% from distance. Their 155.0 offensive rating in transition ranks in the 99th percentile of qualified lineups and they average 103.5 points per 100 plays in the half court. There is not a single weakness to this trio’s offensive game, and for an inconsistent Boston defense that is a problem. The Celtics ranked no higher than 16th in every major shooting category on defense. Their perimeter defense was a real problem, allowing opponents to take 36.3% of their attempts from deep while hitting 37.6% of them. Boston ranked 23rd in opponent mid-range shooting (43.0%) and 22nd in rim defense (65.3%). To make matters worse, Jaylen Brown is done for the, and Boston is worse on defense in every one of those categories when he is off the floor.

It seems there is no real chance for Boston to contain this offense, but is there a universe in which they outscore them for four games?

To do that against this team is not impossible, especially considering the way Brooklyn plays defense. The Nets finished the regular season 21st in defensive efficiency, allowing 113.7 points per 100 possessions to their opponents. Their half-court defense was a real problem, allowing 97.4 points every 100 plays and an offensive rebounding rate of 26.6% to opponents. In fact, they gave up 118.8 points per 100 putback plays this season, the 27th-best mark in the league. Teams that grab offensive boards will have a real opportunity to do some damage against Brooklyn, and Boston can do that.

The Celtics finished second in half-court offensive rebounding rate (28.7%) and sixth in offensive rebounding rate overall (27.1%). In fact, against the Nets this season the Celtics crushed them on the glass, grabbing 35.0% of their misses and 51.8% of the available rebounds in the three games they played. A path to a victory could be via the offensive glass, but four wins in a best of seven? I just don’t see it.

The conversation around Brooklyn’s defense also completely ignores the evidence that the Nets are not as abhorrent as the collective makes them out to be. When Harden, Durant and Irving play together, they allow just 112.1 points per 100 possessions -- a defensive rating that is better than Boston’s this season. That is not to say they are an elite defense, because they do have their flaws. Opponents take 39.5% of their attempts from deep when those three play, and they hit 37.3% of them. Brooklyn allows 98.4 points per 100 plays in the half court as well with Irving, Harden and Durant on the floor, but they are an elite transition defense that only allows 1.113 points per play.

Since the acquisition of Harden, I have believed this Nets team to be the best in the Eastern Conference. There is not a single team in the league that is on par with them offensively, and the Nets can roll certain lineups out to negate their defensive flaws. Boston has some top-tier offensive talent, namely Jayson Tatum. That talent might be able to steal a game against this Nets defense, but to do it four times while its defense struggles is highly unlikely. Frankly, this series looks like it won’t be close on paper, but elite wings can make any team competitive.

Series Pick: Brooklyn in five

No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks (-305) vs. No. 6 Miami Heat (+ 240)

There is arguably no team that feels more pressure in the first round of this postseason than the Milwaukee Bucks. After a trip to the conference finals two seasons ago, they were eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals last year, and the team that sent them home is their opponent in the first round this season. The storylines are abundant in this series, but part of me can’t help but think the public is seeing too much of what transpired between these two teams in Orlando, and not considering what these teams have been for most of this season.

In the bubble last season, Miami exploited Milwaukee’s drop coverage on pick-and-rolls and willingness to allow perimeter shots. In the five games these two played last postseason, Miami averaged 39.6 3-point attempts per game in non-garbage time minutes and shot 37.8% for the series on those attempts. My biggest issue with Milwaukee this season, and in that series last season, has been its perimeter defense.

The Bucks finished the regular season 26th in frequency of opponent attempts from beyond the arc (38.9%) and 29th in opponent 3-point shooting (39.3%). There is certainly a universe in which Miami comes into this series and exploits Mike Budenholzer’s defense yet again, but this year’s Heat team is different. Miami a season ago was the second-best shooting team in the league. They had Jae Crowder, who lit Milwaukee up with 4.4 3-point makes per game on 41.1% shooting. This season, the Heat come into the playoffs ranked 19th in 3-point shooting (36.2%) and don’t have Crowder. Can this Miami offense, which finished averaging just 111.8 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time minutes, regain its offensive form from last summer?

Miami has been much better on offense since the All-Star break. The Heat were 12th in non-garbage time offensive efficiency (114.2) in the second half of the season, but their shooting still ranked 16th (36.8%). Over the final 16 games of the regular season, Miami showed some real life on offense, averaging 119.8 points per 100 possessions and shooting 40.0% on 34.5 3-point attempts per game in non-garbage time. If that version of the Heat shows up in this series the Bucks are in real trouble, but the sample size of 16 games is too small to really believe this is anything more than a hot-shooting stretch. If bettors want to believe that Miami found something over that 16-game stretch on offense that is fine, but then they must also realize that the Heat also regressed immensely on defense over that stretch. 

In the final 16 games of the regular season, the Heat posted the 19th-best defensive rating in non-garbage time, allowing 114.1 points per 100 possessions. They gave up the fifth-fewest attempts at the hoop, but allowed opponents to shoot 73.3% in that area of the floor. Their perimeter defense allowed the highest frequency of attempts (40.6%) and opponents hit 37.5% of those shots. Just like with the offensive surge, I believe this slump defensively to be an aberration.

Miami has consistently been one of the best defensive teams in the league, and in its season-long numbers, it finished eighth in defensive efficiency (111.7). However, the numbers around their perimeter defense bother me somewhat. The Heat were 30th in frequency of opponent attempts not just for the final 16 games of the regular season, but the entire campaign (42.6%); yet opponents only shot 36.9% on those attempts. They ranked just ahead of New York in frequency of wide open 3-point attempts, but opponents shot 38.4% on those looks. How does this style of perimeter defense work against a Milwaukee team which took 37.6% of its attempts from deep and finished sixth in shooting?

At the end of the day, this series comes down to the performance of Giannis Antetokounmpo. In the four games last season, Miami held him to just 21.8 points per game on an average of 7.8 made field goals. Those might seem like sturdy numbers, but Antetokounmpo finished that season with an average of 29.5 points and 10.9 makes per game. This season, he averaged 28.1 points and 10.3 made field goals per game. If he averages anything short of his regular-season averages, Milwaukee is in trouble, and the troubling aspect is that a game plan to stymie Giannis in the postseason has started to take shape.

For lack of a better term, opposing defense have built walls in the postseason that the Greek Freak cannot just barge through. Toronto did it, and so did Miami. Opponents are packing the paint against Giannis, using three defenders to cut off his path from the top of the key to the hoop. It was the strategy that led the Heat to a series victory a season ago, and Giannis has not changed his game enough to deter Miami from using it again. Antetokounmpo shot a combined 33.9% on jump shots this season, and 30.4% from deep. Why in the world would opponents begin to respect his jumper now? 

There is cause to be concerned for both teams in this series. Miami can employ a similar strategy to the one that led them to victory a season ago, but they are also a deeply flawed offensive team. The Heat might be the team that was scoring at will to end the year, but that team had some big problems on defense. These are the same franchises that faced one another in Orlando, but they are not the same teams.

Series Pick: Milwaukee in six

No. 4 New York Knicks (+ 100) vs. No. 5 Atlanta Hawks (-121)

Despite a 3-0 record against the Hawks in the regular season and home-court advantage, the Knickerbockers find themselves as underdogs in this series. The series price might not seem to make sense on the surface, but Atlanta is power rated as the fourth-best team in the Eastern Conference by many. This just seems to be one of many the slights that New York -- the team that just finished seventh-best ATS record in the last 30 years (45-26-1) -- has had to endure this season. However, once you look into this matchup you will realize -- I believe -- why the Hawks should be favored and will likely move on to the Eastern Conference semifinals.

First, let’s address the record in the regular season. Two of the meetings between these two franchises took place before the firing of Lloyd Pierce. Under Pierce this season, Atlanta was 14-20 with a -0.3 net rating and the 22nd-ranked defense (114.0) in non-garbage time minutes; under Nate McMillan, the Hawks have been one of the best teams in the league, going 27-11 in the final 38 games of the season with a + 4.6 net rating, the eighth-best offense (117.1) and a defense that only allowed 112.4 points per 100 possessions.

Atlanta is completely different team under McMillan, and it is also healthier. Bogdan Bogdanovich missed one of these regular season games, Danilo Gallinari missed two and Trae Young left the final game between these two teams with an ankle sprain and an eight-point lead at the end of the third quarter.

The biggest problem for New York in this series is going to be its offense. In the regular season, the Knicks finished 24th in offensive efficiency in non-garbage time minutes, scoring just 110.7 points per 100 possessions. Their biggest strength is their 3-point shooting, a category in which they actually finished fourth (39.5%). The problem is that they take just 32% of their attempts from deep (24th). Under McMillan, the Hawks have limited opponents to just 35.2% from deep, the fifth-best mark in the league during his tenure.

The Knicks’ offense is built around mid-range shooting, but not efficient mid-range shooting. New York takes the seventh-most mid-range attempts of any team in the league, but shoots just 40.2% on those shots. Being inefficient from an inefficient area of the floor leads to bad offense, and that is why the Knicks finished as low as they did in so many offensive categories. Atlanta allowed just 0.949 points per play in the half court over the final 38 games of the season, and New York played the second-most possessions in half-court situations, but finished 22nd in points per play (94.5). It appears this offense will have trouble operating against Atlanta in this series.

However, New York did not make it here on the back of its offense. It did so by riding a defense that finished fourth in non-garbage time efficiency, allowing just 108.4 points per 100 possessions. They rank no lower than sixth in any of the major shooting categories defensively on Cleaning The Glass, and they have the third-best half-court defense (93.1) and sixth-most efficient transition defense (121.1). A series victory lies on this side of the court, but there are a few things that could trip the Knicks up, even on defense. 

First and foremost, it is the perimeter defense. Yes, the Knicks finished first in opponent 3-point shooting (allowing just 33.8% from beyond the arc), but they allowed opponents take 38.1% of their attempts from deep. Does the strategy of allowing perimeter shots hold against Atlanta which is the third-best shooting team in the league since McMillan took over (38.7%)? There is also the fact that New York has allowed the sixth-most wide open 3-point field goal attempts this season, but opponents shooting just 34.7% on those shots. A good shooting team like the Hawks will make them pay for allowing wide open attempts from deep. 

Second is the rebounding. Atlanta has been one of the better rebounding teams in the league this season. The Hawks grabbed 28.4% of their misses this season, the sixth-best rate in the NBA, and if New York has a weakness in its half-court offense it’s ranking 19th in opponent offensive rebounding rate (25.9%). In the second half of the season, the Knicks were demolished on the glass by teams, ranking 26th in offensive rebounding (24.8%), 20th in defensive rebounding (73.0%) and 21st in overall rebounding rate (49.2%). Those are not the numbers you want against a team that finished in the top 10 in each of those categories.

New York has had a fantastic season, and it feels like I am just another non-believer in the Knickerbockers’ magical season. There are too many advantages for the Hawks in this series for me to ignore though.

Series Pick: Atlanta in six

Western Conference

No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers (-400) vs. No. 5 Dallas Mavericks (+ 300)

Another rematch from a playoff series last season, the Clippers seem primed to handle this Mavericks team in much easier fashion this time around. Los Angeles ended the season as one of the best in the league, finishing the second half behind only Utah in net rating (+ 8.4) and inside the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The health has been better for the Clippers as well, and as they head into the postseason they are in peak form.

The Mavericks have been one of the more inconsistent defensive teams in the league. They finished the regular season 22nd in defensive efficiency (113.8), 20th in opponent shooting at the rim (65.0%) and 16th in above-the-break 3-point shooting by opponents (36.8%). Those inconsistencies were not on display in the regular season between these two clubs, as the Mavericks posted a 2-1 SU/ATS record with a + 20.6 net rating, but that number is heavily inflated by an early-season result in which the Clippers were blown out. So, if Dallas is going to fall in this series, how does it happen? I believe it is from beyond the arc.

As previously mentioned, one of the weaker areas of the floor for the Mavericks is those above-the-break 3-point shots, and the Clippers just so happen to lead the league in shooting from that area of the floor (39.5%). In fact, Los Angeles leads the league in every 3-point shooting category this season. When you factor in that the Mavericks have been the 23rd-best non-corner 3-point shooting team in the league since the All-Star break, you realize that the Clippers could find success on offense from the perimeter.

Dallas is fantastic in its own right on offense, though, and it begins with Luka Doncic. When Doncic is on the floor, the Mavericks score 118.3 points per 100 possessions while shooting 69.1% at the rim and 37.4% from deep. Their half-court offense averages a staggering 104.9 points every 100 plays, one of the best figures you will see in the league. However, they must operate at a high level against a Clippers team that allowed the sixth-fewest points per 100 plays in half-court situations (95.1). Dallas clearly thrives with Doncic on the floor, but its problems arise when he takes his rest. Without him on the floor, their net rating drops to an average + 0.6 and their offense puts up just 111.5 per 100 possessions.

Some might believe that this series will play out similarly to last year’s series in Orlando, but I don’t. The growth that Los Angeles has shown, especially on defense in the second half of the season, makes it the best team in the Western Conference in my opinion. The Mavericks have been too inconsistent this season for me to believe they can pull this off.

Series Pick: Los Angeles in five

No. 2 Phoenix Suns (+ 140) vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers (-180)

The market is pretty down on the Lakers, and it’s easy to see why. Los Angeles limped into the postseason, quite literally, with a hobbled LeBron James and barely took care of business against Golden State on Wednesday. The series price moving in favor of Phoenix is not surprising, but the rate at which it moved is, especially considering the Suns’ struggles to close the season.

Phoenix went into the All-Star break with a 24-11 record and a defense that was allowing only 108.2 points per 100 possessions; opponents were shooting just 45.8% from the floor and 34.8% from 3-point range. However, since the All-Star break the Suns have been a different team on defense. Over the last 34 games of the regular season, Phoenix ranked 21st in defensive efficiency, allowing opponents to score 112.5 points per 100 possessions. In non-garbage time minutes, tracked by Cleaning The Glass, they were 18th with a 113.3 defensive rating. Their rim defense really regressed in the second half. Opponents were not getting to the rim any more than they were in the first half, but they were finishing at 67.3% clip, much higher than what the Suns allowed in the previous 35 games. Those regressions on defense are paired with a transition defense that has consistently been among the worst in the league. If what has happened to this Phoenix defense is real, that will be a massive issue against Los Angeles.

The Lakers have not been at full strength for most of this season, but when they are they have the profile of a team that can fully exploit all of those weaknesses. With both Anthony Davis and James on the floor together, Los Angeles has outscored opponents by 14.2 points per 100 possessions, and the majority of that scoring comes at the rim. In those minutes, the Lakers take 37.6% of their shots within four feet while shooting an unconscious 70.4%. They also pick up the pace, starting possessions with a transition play 19% of the time, a mark that puts those lineups in the 98th percentile of qualified lineups in the league. Against the Suns, which have been struggling to keep teams from finishing at the hoop and in transition, those seem like strengths the Lakers can lean on. Having said that, Los Angeles’ title hopes really rest on the shoulders of Davis and his desire to play center.

In their win over the Warriors on Wednesday, the Lakers showed the world how effective those lineups can be. Davis primarily played power forward in the first half, but when Frank Vogel removed the traditional center, the offense opened up. Los Angeles averaged 1.22 points per possession over the final two quarters while posting a + 32.0 net rating. In the regular season the Lakers outscored opponents by 16.9 points per 100 possessions and posted a 118.7 offensive rating. It is clear this is their most optimal lineup, but in the regular season they played just over 200 possessions with Davis at the 5, and it took a 13-point deficit for Vogel to use it. This has to be something both sides buy into, but so far the Lakers have not been very willing to use it.

Much of this is dependent on James’ health as well. He looked stiff and uncomfortable until the second half of the Lakers’ play-in victory over the Warriors. If James is healthy the path through Phoenix is clear for Los Angeles, but if he is not then you get the version of Los Angeles that was held to 0.857 points per possession by Golden State in the first half. I’m banking on the healthy James being available.

Series pick: Los Angeles in six

No. 3 Denver Nuggets (-103) vs No. 6 Portland Trail Blazers (-122)

This series has slowly become the one I am most interested in. These two franchises duked it out a few seasons ago in a series that Portland won in seven. This season, the Trail Blazers get the chance to do it again, and this time the Nuggets’ backcourt has been ravaged by injury before the first minute has been played. The betting market has been all over the place here, but the consensus price has Portland as a -130 favorite due to the advantage has at guard. However, the market might be forgetting about an edge that Denver has on its side.

Let’s start with the evaluation of the backcourts. Denver lost Jamal Murray for the season last month, and both Will Barton and P.J. Dozier will likely be unavailable when this series tips-off. That leaves a backcourt rotation of Monte Morris, Facundo Campazzo, Austin Rivers and Markus Howard to match up with the likes of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum -- that could truly be a problem.

Mike Malone rolled with Campazzo and Rivers in the backcourt a couple of times down the stretch of the regular season, but the results weren’t great: The Nuggets were outscored by 2.0 points every 100 possessions and posted a 117.4 defensive rating. Morris is an effective guard in the NBA, but has been dealing with injuries of his own. When he is on the floor, the Nuggets have a + 6.4 net rating and average 118.3 points per 100 possessions on offense. Those are all great figures, but we have no idea if Morris is truly healthy. There really is no comparison between the units on paper. When Lillard and McCollum share the floor, the Trail Blazers outscore opponents by 9.4 points every 100 possessions due to an offense that puts up a 123.7 rating. But as immense as that edge is, the same could be said when you compare what Denver has in its frontcourt.

Any conversation about the Nuggets starts with Nikola Jokic. The Serbian big man has been incredible, and with him on the floor Denver’s offense is comparable to any in the league. The Nuggets outscore the opposition by 7.0 points per 100 possessions with Jokic in the game, but those numbers only get better when you include Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. to the mix.

When those three share the floor, Denver obliterates the competition, scoring 122.4 points per 100 possessions while only allowing 111.6 on the defensive end. Their offense operates at an insanely efficient rate inside the arc, shooting 74% at the rim and 47.9% from mid-range. That frontcourt trio now gets to work against an interior defense that has regularly sat in the bottom half of the league all season. Portland ranks 23rd in frequency of opponent attempts at the rim this season, and 15th in rim defense (64.3%). They allow opponents shoot 42.8% on all mid-range shots as well, the 19th-best mark in the league. When defending a team like the Nuggets, it doesn’t serve you well to allow shots in the painted area, but that is exactly what Portland does on defense.

So which advantage outweighs the other in this series? The more dynamic guard play would usually win out for me, but the way that Portland generates offense gives me pause. The Trail Blazers are not a team that consistently attacks off the bounce and finishes at the rim; they rank 23rd in frequency of attempts at the hoop and 25th in rim shooting (61.1%). They take the second-most 3-point attempts per game in the league (41.8%) and rank fifth in shooting (39.2%). Those shooting numbers are fantastic, but a cold night from deep spells doom for this offense. How does that play out against a team with a better frontcourt that can score more consistently inside?

Overall, this series comes to down to the price for me. Circa had Denver at + 112 as of Friday and that was playable price for me. The Nuggets clearly have the edge up front, and they are expected to get some missing pieces back at some point in this series. Portland has been consistently poor on defense this season, finishing 29th in defensive efficiency. That is enough to get me on the underdog.

Series pick: Denver in seven

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