2022 NBA playoffs: Best bets for Eastern Conference first round

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Welcome to my preview of the first round of the postseason in the Eastern Conference. Below are full previews of each series and picks for how I believe those will play out. Throughout the postseason you can find all the NBA coverage you need here and on The Edge (1 p.m. PT / 4 p.m. ET) daily.

#1 Miami Heat (-370) vs #8 Atlanta Hawks (+ 300)

Miami might be one of the most disrespected No. 1 seeds in NBA history to some, but they do have a legitimately challenging opponent to open the postseason in Atlanta. A year after making a run to the Eastern Conference Finals the Hawks had to fight their way into the playoffs with impressive victories over the Hornets and Cavaliers in the play-in tournament. The team is here now though and this sets up this series to be one of the best matchups between a No. 1 and No. 8 seed in recent memory.

The most intriguing aspect of this series is going to be Miami’s defense against Atlanta’s offense. The Hawks ended the regular season second in overall offensive efficiency in non-garbage time minutes (116.3) and much of that is due to Trae Young. With Young on the floor the Hawks averaged 119.3 points per 100 possessions this season, and his brilliance was on display in the two play-in games as he dropped a combined 62 points to lead Atlanta to South Beach. Young is a mismatch hunter and that will not change in this series against Miami which means Max Strus will be the target for Atlanta’s offense. Strus has done a great job in taking the starting shooting guard spot down the stretch, and he is by no means a poor defender, but in a lineup with Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo he is easily the link in the chain to go after. With Strus on the floor the Heat allowed 2.4 points more per 100 possessions and 2.2 more points per 100 plays in halfcourt settings in the regular season. That matchup is going to be key in Miami potentially containing the league’s best halfcourt offense. The Hawks are dangerous in transition as well which is something the Heat learned the hard way when it allowed 1.875 points per play in the break on April 8 when they beat this team 113-109 at home.

Atlanta obviously has its own challenges to overcome in this series as well. Much like Young is going to hunt Strus and other lesser defenders in halfcourt settings, so too will Young be hunted by Lowry, Butler and others. The Hawks allowed 99.1 points per 100 plays in those situations with Young on the court this season. Atlanta will attempt to hide him in the corners on PJ Tucker, much like they did in the series with Milwaukee, but Miami will make sure he’s involved in as many actions as possible. The Heat are a slower team that spent 80.8% of its possessions in the halfcourt in the regular season, and over the course of this series they should be able to maintain their offensive efficiency in these settings with exploitable pieces like Young on the floor. Miami will also be able to pick apart Atlanta’s atrocious transition defense. The Heat only ranked 19th in transition frequency this season, but they led the league in offensive efficiency in transition (133.4). Lowry is an elite transition player who will get the Heat out on the break when the opportunity presents itself which means bettors should expect a lot from this offense as well.

Betting Perspective

Atlanta should be competitive in this series with Miami, much like it was in their final meeting of the regular season. If Young is on the floor this offense is elite, and the way he hunts opposing weak links on defense make it a near impossible task for a team to stop this unit on that end of the floor. On the other end, there are plenty of ways the Heat can pick apart one of the worst defenses in the league. It’s likely why the first game total got bumped up on the betting market and I think this is the way this series is likely to go. A competitive series on a night-to-night basis that has some high-scoring potential. The underdog and the Over will be live in almost every game, and its why bettors are laying 170 on the + 2.5 games which is the angle I would take here. 

Series Pick: Heat in 6

No. 2 Boston Celtics (-150) vs. No. 7 Brooklyn Nets (+ 130)

This must be the most anticipated 2-vs.-7 first-round series in NBA history. After playing with fire all season long, Brooklyn has made its way from the play-in tournament only to face a Boston team that it went 1-3 SU/1-2-1 ATS against. However, that record in the regular season is a useless barometer for how these two teams match up: Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were available for just one of the four matchups, and James Harden played in two of them. The Nets’ loss in Boston on March 6 is the lone preview of what we could see this series, and if it plays out similarly then this could be a short postseason for the preseason favorites.

Defense is where you must begin any analysis of this series. Boston finished the regular season with the best defensive rating in non-garbage time minutes, allowing just 106.9 points per 100 possessions. On other side we have Brooklyn, which finished 21st in that same category with a 113.6 defensive rating, and those numbers have a ton of noise in them. Irving has only played in 29 games – most coming on the road – and both he and Durant have only played 17 games together. The sample size is small, but the information gleaned from those games is that this team is going to have a tough time containing Jayson Tatum and the Celtics’ offense. Just look at that 126-120 loss at the beginning of March.

Boston put up 1.26 points per possession and Tatum scored 54 points on 16-of-30 shooting. Tatum will not average 54 PPG in this series, but his ability to work Brooklyn’s perimeter defenders speaks the biggest issue this team has: The Nets can't defend elite perimeter players. Darius Garland scored 64 points in his last two games against them on 52.1% shooting; Jalen Green and Kevin Porter combined for 66 points on 51.6% shooting just a week ago. The list goes on and the numbers with their best starting lineup back it up, as Steve Nash’s most used lineup with both Durant and Irving is just + 1.1 per 100 possessions despite a 118.9 offensive rating! In half-court settings, that group gives up 101.5 points per 100 plays as well. This team just cannot be trusted to string together stops, but when two of the most gifted scorers in the league are on your team then stops are not needed as often.

Once more, go back to that loss in Boston. Brooklyn’s defense was atrocious, but the Nets offense did its thing in averaging 1.224 points per possession with Durant dropping 37 points on 12-of-21 shooting from the floor. The ceiling of this team’s offense is incredible, and it showed in that loss as Boston put up its worst individual game defensive rating in nearly two months at the time. Having two talented offensive players at the level of Durant and Irving mean a lot. There are not many lineups that can put up the defensive numbers the Nets’ starting five does and still come out with a positive net rating, but that is what those two bring to the table. As great as this Celtics defense can be, even without Robert Williams, they have no answer for Durant. In two games this season he averaged 29 points on 54.1% shooting from the floor and in the first round last season he terrorized them for 32.6 PPG on 54.6% shooting. That mismatch is going nowhere and it is going to this series a brawl for Boston as well. 

Ultimately, this comes down to which team I have more confidence in when it comes to get a stop in a tight game -- and there is no question that is Boston. Even if Brooklyn’s scorers are doing what they do, it is the Celtics who have the highest probability of forcing a missed field goal attempt in crunch time. There is also the question of Durant and Irving’s workload and how that taxes them in this series and in the postseason. Those two each played 42 minutes against Cleveland in the play-in game, and in the short time with Durant on the bench they were outscored by nine points.

This will be a tough-fought series for both teams, but I believe there are enough advantages in favor of Boston that will push them forward.

Series Pick: Celtics in 7

No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks (-650) vs. No. 6 Chicago Bulls (+ 450)

The betting market made its feelings known about this series when the price opened to the masses on Sunday. DraftKings hung the Bucks at -650 to win the series, and before you could blink the price had reached -1000 -- a price that carries an implied probability of 90.9%. The series spread opened at -1.5, + 100 and that was quickly pounded to the point that DraftKings had to adjust to -2.5, -170 which is what's up right now. It might seem overzealous to some that the market believes Chicago has almost no chance of winning this series, but given the way this series has gone and how the season ended, it makes all the sense in the world to make Milwaukee an overwhelming favorite.

In four games this season, the Bucks went 4-0 SU/3-1 ATS against the Bulls while outscoring them by 14.0 points per 100 possessions. Milwaukee was dominant on both ends of the floor in the series, limiting Chicago to a 102.0 offensive rating and 43.1% shooting from the floor in the four games. One would think that offensive struggles for a team like the Bulls would mean that stars like DeMar DeRozan or Zach LaVine failed to show up in this series, but that was hardly the case. DeRozan averaged 31.3 PPG on 47.4% shooting from the floor in four games against the Bucks, and even dropped 40 in the first meeting of the season. Zach LaVine played in just two of the games, averaged 25.5 PPG and shot 41.2% from 3-point range.

It was the supporting cast of Chicago that failed to contribute in meaningful ways on offense in the regular season. Only three players not named DeRozan, LaVine or Nikola Vucevic scored in double figures in this series and two of them – Coby White and Patrick Williams – occurred in the same game. In all, the Bulls’ bench averaged just 22 points on 42% shooting from the floor against the Bucks this season, a scoring figure that would have ranked last by 3.7 points this season. If Chicago is going to push Milwaukee in this series, the role players must be much better -- easier said than done, as the Bulls ranked 29th in bench scoring this season. That lack of scoring is an issue in and of itself, but it is magnified when Chicago’s defense is unable to match up with Milwaukee’s offense in any meaningful way. 

The other reason the Bulls had trouble with the Bucks – and why the market is so staunchly in favor of Milwaukee – was the inability of their defense to stymie Giannis Antetokounmpo and Co. on offense. Antetokounmpo himself ravaged Chicago’s defense, averaging 26.8 PPG and 13.5 rebounds on 55.7% shooting from the floor. Outside of just having arguably the best player in the league, it was Milwaukee’s style that really disturbed the Bulls defensively.

Chicago allowed the highest frequency of attempts at the rim in the regular season (36.5%) while ranking 21st in opponent points added per 100 possessions through transition (+ 3.0) and 26th in defensive efficiency in transition (130.4). Those weaknesses play right into the hands of a Milwaukee team that takes 33.5% of its attempts at the rim with Antetokounmpo on the floor and finished the regular season with the sixth-highest frequency of possessions beginning with a transition play (16.5%). The Bulls are at even bigger disadvantage in half-court settings, where they finished 24th in defensive efficiency (98.2) and must defend a team in this series that finished sixth in that category on offense (99.4). 

Like any team, the Bucks have their weaknesses. Milwaukee’s defensive philosophy of allowing 3-poinnt attempts worked against them once again this season and it resulted in the team finishing 28th in opponent 3-point shooting on non-corner attempts (36.4%). However, Chicago is just not the team to take advantage of a weakness like that. The Bulls finished last in frequency of 3-point attempts above the break (21.4%), and while they can shoot at an efficient rate as a team, their best 3-point shooter (Lonzo Ball) is out this series. The Bucks are not a perfect team, but they are much better than the Bulls and should end this series with ease.

Series Pick: Bucks in 4 

No. 4 Philadelphia 76ers (-235) vs No. 5 Toronto Raptors (+ 185)

If you figuratively lick your finger and test the wind of what the masses believe will go down in this series, you will get a resounding agreement on Philadelphia being on thin ice here against Toronto. This is the case even though the 76ers ended the season on a 5-1 SU run, and that since the trade deadline Philadelphia has a 16-8 SU record and the fifth-best net rating in the league (+ 5.2). Furthermore, when Joel Embiid and James Harden share the floor the 76ers have a + 15.8 net rating and average 124.1 points per 100 possessions, and their most used lineup with those two has a + 20.3 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass. So how is it that a team that has lineups that are statistically dominant with two of the best players in the league has become such a voguish selection to head home in the first round? 

The place to begin when answering that question is with the opponent. Toronto has been a thorn in the paw of Philadelphia all season, posting a 3-1 SU/4-0 ATS record against them this season while outscoring them by 2.9 points per 100 possessions over the course of those four contests. This is despite the Raptors having Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby on the floor for just one of those games, a 115-109 win on Nov. 11 in Philadelphia. The obvious rebuttal would be to ask what the series was like after the Harden acquisition, and the answer would be “Not great Bob!”, as the 76ers are 0-2 SU and ATS against the Raptors with Harden -- and their net rating is much worse (-6.0) in those two games.

Toronto is just a team is constructed to bother Philadelphia. The Raptors love to run, ending the regular season with the second-highest frequency of possessions started with a transition play (18.6%) while ranking fourth in points added per 100 possessions in transition play (+ 3.6) and third in fast-break points per game (15.8). The 76ers do not defend well in transition. They ranked 27th in both opponent points added per 100 possessions through transition (+ 3.5) and defensive efficiency in transition (131.1) while also allowing the third-highest amount of fast-break points per game (15.0), and since Harden’s arrival those figures have become exponentially worse. That’s an extremely lopsided matchup in favor of Toronto, and while most would point to Embiid as the great arrow in the quiver of Doc Rivers, the MVP candidate has struggled against Nick Nurse’s defensive game plans.

Embiid has averaged just 19.3 points on 36.2% shooting from the floor against the Raptors over the past three seasons. To be fair, he put in 29 PPG on 46.6% shooting this season, but in their penultimate meeting he put together an inefficient 21 points on 6-of-20 shooting from the floor. Nurse is a defensive wizard and his team is littered with long, athletic wings who double Embiid and force him to work more as a passer -- and that has not gone well for Embiid (four assists in three games against the Raptors this season). However, the biggest impact Embiid will have on this series will be in his minutes on the bench.

When Embiid sits and Harden runs the show on his own Philadelphia has a -11.6 net rating and the team allows 125.7 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning The Glass. It’s clear that Embiid’s minutes on the bench are going to be a massive swing point in every game this series, but they will be magnified in the games north of the border. Matisse Thybulle is not going to be available in road games this series due to his vaccination status, and that is a massive blow for the 76ers’ defense. In the minutes that Harden has been on the floor without both Embiid and Thybulle, Philadelphia's net rating plummets to -21.5 and its defense allows 131.4 points per 100 possessions. The backup center minutes have been a nightmare for Philadelphia, and Rivers’ stubbornness in playing DeAndre Jordan or Paul Millsap in those spots could ultimately cost the team in this series.

This is not to say that Toronto is going to run away with this series, as the Raptors have some glaring weaknesses of their own. Toronto finished the regular season 26th in half-court offensive efficiency, averaging just 91.3 points per 100 plays. The struggle to score when the game bogs down has been a problem in the Nurse era, and its reflective of the team’s roster construction: There is no true north-south threat for Toronto that can consistently create off the dribble. It’s why the Raptors were 24th in free throw rate and 26th in both frequency of attempts at the rim (30.2%) and shooting at the rim (62.8%). Toronto averaged just 112.9 points per 100 possessions on offense in the regular season which was just 16th by Cleaning The Glass standards.

The downfall for the Raptors will come via an offense that struggles to score in half-court oriented games in this series. Having said that, I believe there are enough advantages here for Toronto that will ultimately move them on to the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Series Pick: Raptors in 7

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