An NBA showcase: Bucks at Lakers

It’s definitely worth staying up for: Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks visit LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in a potential NBA Finals preview at 9:30 p.m. Friday (ESPN). 

This is the second of two regular-season meetings. Milwaukee (-4) beat L.A. 111-104 at home Dec. 19.

It’s far from a sure thing that they’ll meet again in the Finals. The Lakers are underdogs to the field to win the West, according to current futures prices at William Hill: Lakers 11/10 (48%), Clippers 7/5 (42%), Rockets 10/1 (9%), Nuggets 10/1 (9%), Jazz 17/1 (6%), Mavericks 25/1 (4%).  

Within that grouping of the most serious threats, the Lakers trail the other five percentage sums (70%). Remember that sportsbooks build a universe larger than 100% to create a house edge. Even if you think the Lakers and Clippers should be even and that nobody else has a chance, that would still be just a coin flip for LeBron to reach the Finals. 

Milwaukee is a much bigger favorite in the less dynamic East: Bucks -240 (71%), Celtics 5/1 (17%), Raptors 5/1 (17%), Heat 10/1 (9%), Sixers 12/1 (8%).

Of course, Bucks-Lakers is also a matchup of the two most talked-about Most Valuable Player candidates. Antetokounmpo is the perceived winner, given his spectacular season for a dominant team. William Hill has it: Antetokounmpo -900 (90%), James 6/1 (14%), James Harden 12/1 (8%), Luka Doncic 12/1 (8%). Nothing you could consider a value bet with that quartet adding up to 120%. 

It will be interesting to see where the line settles Friday, assuming both regular starting lineups are at full strength. Readers know that Jonathan Von Tobel (“The Edge”) helps us put together estimated market Power Ratings for the NFL and NBA. Here’s a quick outline as we approach the final month. 

— East playoff contenders: Bucks 87, Raptors 84, Sixers 83 (81 when missing Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons), Celtics 83 (81 without Kemba Walker), Heat 82, Pacers 80, Magic 78, Nets 78. 

— East non-contenders, all 73-ish: Wizards, Hornets, Knicks, Bulls, Hawks, Pistons, Cavaliers. 

— West playoff contenders: Lakers 86, Clippers 86, Rockets 85, Mavericks 84, Jazz 83, Nuggets 82, Thunder 82, Pelicans 82, Grizzlies 77 (due to injuries, a bucket higher when healthy).

— West non-contenders: Blazers 79 (now that Damian Lillard is back), Kings 77, Spurs 77, Suns 74, Timberwolves 74 (dealing with injuries), Warriors 70. 

Remember that home-court advantage is typically worth three points in the NBA. Lines often adjust two to three points when a team playing the second night of a back-to-back is facing a rested opponent. Be sure to account for that in your nightly handicapping, as well as injuries and load management.

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