The second round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs is here, with the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers already eliminated. That means we will crown a new champ this year.
How healthy is Joel Embiid? Will the Brooklyn Nets' Big 3 come through in a tougher series against Milwaukee? Can the Phoenix Suns stay hot?
Here are my NBA Playoff Round 2 betting series previews:
Odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook, as of Friday afternoon.
No. 1 Utah Jazz (-130) vs No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers (+ 105)
It took seven games, but the Clippers finally shook off the playoff demons and ousted Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks at home on Sunday to move on to the Western Conference semifinals. Some might look at that series and be troubled at the thought of the Clippers needing an entire best-of-seven series to eliminate a team built around a third-year professional, but the final five games paint the true picture of this series: Los Angeles outscored Dallas by 10.7 points per 100 possessions and posted a 119.1 offensive rating in taking four of five games. That team is what Utah is getting in this series ... and that might be a problem for the Jazz.
In February, Utah was rolling. The Jazz had won 20 of 21 games heading into a road game against the Clippers, a team they had just beaten two nights prior by 18 points. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard had missed that game, but were available to play at Staples that night and shockingly a different result awaited Utah. Los Angeles averaged 1.172 points per possession and burned the Jazz’s shaky mid-range defense on 23-of-44 shooting from that area of the floor. Leonard scored 29 points and snapped Utah’s winning streak. It's only one regular-season game, but the matchups exploited that night are ones that will likely work in the Clippers’ favor in this playoff series.
Utah finished the regular season as the most efficient defense in the league, allowing 107.5 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time minutes, but its mid-range defense has been a weak link. Elite mid-range scorers have given the Jazz trouble, and you can look no further than the last series in which Ja Morant torched Utah for 30.2 points and 8.2 assists per game on 48.3% shooting from the floor. Chris Paul averaged 17.3 points and 8.7 assists on 45.7% shooting in the three regular-season games against them. The problem for the Jazz stems from a defense that allowed the second-most mid-range attempts in the regular season. Yes, the mid-range jumper is an inefficient shot, so it is beneficial to allow teams as a whole to take them, but when you allow elite mid-range scorers to do so your defense suffers.
Leonard is an elite mid-range shooter himself, taking 49% of his attempts from that area of the floor while shooting 47.4% on those shots. Utah also has no real option on defense for him. Royce O’Neale is a capable defender but gives up size to him. Bojan Bogdanovich has the size but can't stay in front of Leonard. The Jazz have no true option for the Clippers’ best player and the mismatches continue from there.
Utah has no single player that will command the defensive attention that Doncic did in the first round. Donovan Mitchell is a tremendous scorer but will not force Los Angeles to blitz off screens or double then subsequently rotate. Leonard, Paul George or Marcus Morris are all capable of handling that assignment on their own if need be. Should Mike Conley miss time in this series, that is also one less ball-handler for the Clippers to worry about. Joe Ingles is an incredible shooter, but not a threat off the bounce like Conley, making Los Angeles’ job that much easier on the defense. The Clippers held the Mavericks to 108.4 points per 100 possessions in the final five games of their series, showing just how capable they are on the defensive end.
After a long first-round series, the betting market has turned on Los Angeles somewhat. Jay Croucher, Head of Trading at PointsBet, told me and Mitch Moss on Monday that PointsBet wanted to make the Clippers the favorite to win this series, but the market would not let them. I agree with that sentiment. The Clippers have all of the pieces to bother the Jazz, including an offense built around a mid-range scorer that can shoot on par with Utah, and defensive wings with size that can overwhelm on that end of the floor. Do not let the series with Dallas skew your evaluation of Los Angeles. Instead, focus on those five games in which the Clippers dismantled their opponent, because that is the true form of this team.
Series pick: Los Angeles in six
No. 2 Phoenix Suns (-220) vs. No. 3 Denver Nuggets (+ 175)
After overcoming a massive mismatch in the backcourt against Portland, the Nuggets must now do it again against Devin Booker, Chris Paul and the Suns. Making matters worse, Paul has three days off before this series begin to allow his shoulder to heal. It does not seem that Denver will benefit from the long layoff, as it appears neither Will Barton nor P.J. Dozier will be back in time for Game 1 on Monday. If that is the case, the backcourt rotation of Facundo Campazzo, Monte Morris and Austin Rivers will have its hands full yet again.
That is not to say the Suns will have an issue of their own. Nikola Jokic demolished the Trail Blazers to the tune of 33.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game on 53.4% shooting. In the regular season, he did the same to Phoenix. dropping a 25.7/13.7/8.3 stat line on 50.8% shooting -- and he thrives in areas of the floor in which the Suns struggled defensively in the regular season.
Phoenix finished 24th in opponent shooting percentage at the rim (65.5%) and 16th in opponent mid-range shooting (42.7%); Jokic took 51% of his attempts from mid-range while placing in the 94th percentile at his position in mid-range shooting (55.1%) and he was whiz within four feet of the tin (69.8%). How will Deandre Ayton handle this assignment on defense? The third-year pro has improved all facets of his game, but Jokic will likely find success against him in space. With Ayton on the floor this season, the Suns allowed 1.3 more points per 100 possessions, and opponent mid-range shooting jumped 2.1% in those minutes. Denver averaged 112.1 points per 100 possessions on offense due to Jokic’s play and it seems that the eventual MVP will be able to operate at a high level in this matchup.
Devin Booker could have the same success, though. Booker just put together a fantastic series of his own against the Los Angeles Lakers, averaging 29.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game, including 47 points on 68.2% shooting in the series-clinching Game 6. Now he gets to face a thin backcourt that was toasted by Damian Lillard. Campazzo gives up seven inches to Booker and both he and Austin Rivers are subpar defenders. Morris is an adequate defender but nowhere near the level that would shut down the likes of Booker. Paul is a threat in his own right, especially against opposing centers, but this mismatch goes past Booker and Paul.
The Nuggets finished 11th in non-garbage time defensive efficiency, allowing 112.5 points per 100 possessions, but there was some real flaws with their defense. Opponents shot 68.1% within four feet, the worst mark in the league, and 37.0% from deep against Denver. Phoenix shot 67.4% at the rim and 38.3% from beyond the arc as a team. They finished as the sixth-most efficient offense in the league and third in half-court offensive efficiency. The Nuggets had trouble with the Trail Blazers as a whole in the last series and posted a 123.6 defensive rating. This would be another matchup that give them trouble on that end of the floor.
At some point, the Nuggets will have to pay for the injuries they have accumulated in the backcourt. With Barton and Dozier nowhere near a return, it is hard to envision them pulling out another series win over another team with an edge in the backcourt. This series price is right where I make it, but if there is a dip below -200 that is a price worth investing in the Suns.
Series pick: Phoenix in six
No. 1 Philadelphia 76ers (-200) vs No. 5 Atlanta Hawks (+ 160)
As we approach Game 1 of this series the status of Joel Embiid is still unknown. Shockingly enough, the way this series plays out is tied directly to his health and availability. If Embiid is on the floor and healthy then the Philadelphia 76ers should be sizeable favorites to win this series. If he is not available then the door that leads to the Eastern Conference Finals obviously becomes much easier to open for the Atlanta Hawks.
In the regular season this was a matchup that gave Atlanta quite a bit of trouble. The Hawks went 1-2 SU and ATS against the 76ers with a -17.5 net rating. The gap between these two teams is likely not that large as Trae Young missed one of those contests, Ben Simmons missed another and one was played in January. However, there are certain things that Atlanta will likely have trouble with should Philadelphia be at full strength.
With Embiid on the floor this season the 76ers outscore their opponents by 12.6 points every 100 possessions. Their defense is obviously a huge part of that number, but their offense is among some of the best in the league with Embiid at center. Philadelphia has an offensive rating of 119.0 with Embiid on the floor, and while most might think that offense is generated at the rim, it is not. Embiid has emerged as an elite mid-range scorer and with him out there the 76ers take 37.1% of their attempts from that area of the floor. Embiid himself shoots 47.1% on mid-range shots and Philadelphia hits at a 47.5% rate when he is playing. His presence on the floor attracts attention as well, and with defenses so preoccupied by Embiid it allows shooters space. Thus, Philadelphia shoots 40.9% from 3-point range with him out there. Atlanta actually finished with the third-best perimeter defense in the league in terms of accuracy (35.2%) but they had trouble defending the mid-range area of the floor and ended up 24th in opponent mid-range shooting. Not an area you should struggle in with an elite scorer like Embiid.
That is all reliant on Embiid playing, of course. Without him the 76ers are obviously a much different team. When Embiid is on the floor they are an elite offense which plays 79.2% of its plays in half-court situations. Without him Philadelphia’s offensive rating plummets to 108.4 and they suddenly are outscored by 1.0 point every 100 possessions. Statistically there really it really is an ugly picture without Embiid, even with Ben Simmons on the floor. In those solo Simmons minutes the net rating worsens to -5.0 and their offense averages just 107.4 points per 100 possessions. Statistically, the 76ers are better off in the minutes without Simmons and Embiid. In those possessions they actually outscored the opposition by 1.8 points per 100 possessions and finished in the 91st percentile of qualified lineups in defensive efficiency (107.3). Safe to say that Atlanta is much more live if Embiid is going to miss all, if not most, of this series.
The Hawks put all of their improvements on display in their series win over the Knicks. Atlanta outscored New York by 8.6 points per 100 possessions and over the final three games of the series shot 40.6% from the perimeter. Those shooting figures will be very important in this series for the Hawks. If Philadelphia had a weakness on defense it was allowing high amounts of above the break 3-point attempts and 37.0% on those shots. Atlanta finished ninth in shooting on non-corner 3-pointers this season (36.9%) and should be able to find success from that area of the floor. They only shot 35.0% on those looks against the Knicks, but five games is a short sample size. Those figures will likely regress to the mean against a perimeter defense that is somewhat weak in that area of the floor.
The fact that Embiid has not been ruled out keeps the door open that he will play in this series, but not knowing when that will be makes it tough to handicap this series. If Embiid is available from the jump then this is a series that I believe the 76ers have a large advantage in and a price of under -200 is worth playing. However, since that is an unknown I won’t be getting involved prior to the series. Even if Embiid is out this defense for Philadelphia is good enough to eke out a series win.
Series pick: Philadelphia in seven
No. 2 Brooklyn Nets (-200) vs. No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks (+ 160)
When Joel Embiid went down with a knee injury in Game 4 of the Philadelphia 76ers’ first round series against the Washington Wizards, the aura around this series between Milwaukee and Brooklyn grew immensely. What was just a conference semifinal matchup could now be a de facto Eastern Conference Finals should Embiid be seriously injured. Two of the best teams in the league, with the ability to exploit the weakness of the other, and what could be a conference title on the line. What more could you ask for?
Milwaukee rolled through Miami in four games in the first round of the playoffs, showing just how much better the addition of Jrue Holiday makes them. A team they lost to in five games a series ago was swept away without so much as a bead of sweat. The Bucks were dominant on defense, limiting the Heat to just 98.9 points per 100 possessions and 35.2% from distance in non-garbage time minutes. That defensive prowess will be needed in a big way against Brooklyn. Holiday will likely draw the duty of chasing Kyrie Irving around the floor when he moves off the ball. Giannis Antetokounmpo guarded Jimmy Butler for most of their series and held him to 14.5 points per game on 31.5% shooting. He will need another incredible performance against Kevin Durant. Khris Middleton, who finished as the 27th-best small forward in defensive real plus-minus this season, will likely draw quite a few possessions against James Harden. On paper, there really is no better team than Milwaukee to match up with Brooklyn from a personnel standpoint, but that is easier said than done.
The loss of Donte DiVincenzo for the rest of the postseason hurts Milwaukee quite a bit. DiVincenzo was a solid member of their starting five, ranking seventh among shooting guards in defensive real plus-minus and improving the Bucks’ defensive rating by 2.2 points every 100 possessions. He was also coming off of his best shooting season, hitting 37.9% of his 3-point attempts, something that would have come in handy against Brooklyn. Pat Connaughton drew the start in the first game without him, but Milwaukee is just less effective without DiVincenzo.
With DiVincenzo at shooting guard, the Bucks are 8.8 per 100 possessions. Compare that to the 4.2 net rating with Connaughton at the position or -1.4 net rating with Bryn Forbes and you see how much DiVincenzo is worth to this team. It might be foolish to think that his absence would swing a series of this magnitude, but with so little separating these two teams it might just make the difference.
Regardless, Milwaukee will need to exploit Brooklyn’s defense both inside and outside in this series. When the Bucks have Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton on the floor together they average 119.1 points and outscore opponents by 13.7 points per 100 possessions. They shoot 37.6% from deep and 72.7% at the rim, and while most will focus on the Nets’ interior defense, it has been the perimeter which has been their Achilles heel when Irving, Harden and Durant are on the floor. With those three together Brooklyn gives up a modest 112.1 points per 100 possessions, but opponents take 39.5% of their attempts from deep and shoot 37.3% on those attempts. Their half-court defense, an area of offense in which Milwaukee averages 105.6 points per 100 plays, allows 98.4 points per 100 plays. The Bucks are the sixth-best shooting team in the league and can certainly exploit a shaky perimeter defense.
However, Milwaukee has its own issues on defense. The Bucks finished 10th in defensive efficiency this season, but were held back by a perimeter defense that was among the worst in the league. Opponents took the fifth-most 3-point attempts from beyond the arc against the Bucks and shot 39.3%, the second-worst mark in the league. Brooklyn is a deadly shooting team (No. 2 in shooting in the regular season), and with its top trio on the floor it shoots 39.7% from the arc. Milwaukee will need to somehow right the ship with its perimeter defense if it is to win this series, and it also needs to figure out what to do when Giannis hits the bench.
With Giannis off the floor this season. the Bucks gave up 116.8 points per 100 possessions and posted a -0.6 net rating. Against the Nets, that will not get it done. Brooklyn has done a great job of staggering the minutes of their Big 3, usually letting Harden run the show when Irving and Durant rest. Those solo Harden lineups outscored opponents by 3.3 points per 100 possessions and will be able to exploit the reserves of Milwaukee.
There isn't much separating these two teams, so the series price surprised me when shops like Circa opened as high as Brooklyn -230 to win it. That carries an implied probability of nearly 70%, which is somewhat high for me. I believe the Nets will eventually win a very tough series, but if this price reaches 200 on the Bucks again, there is some serious value on the underdog.
Series pick: Brooklyn in seven