Of all the subplots to consider in the NBA Finals, the most complicated is the status of Kevin Durant. Golden State’s surly superstar has been sidelined by a calf injury that makes him questionable to appear at any point in the series.
The mystery surrounding Durant is problematic for bettors, oddsmakers and, of course, a Warriors team attempting to win a fourth title in five years. It’s purely a positive for the underdog Toronto Raptors, who are given more than a puncher’s chance to knock out the champs.
The series line at William Hill sports books (Golden State -300, Toronto 250) is the consensus market price, but that does not mean all sharp minds agree it’s the right price. Because no one knows if Durant will play, this is a game show and everyone is guessing.
“It’s an impossible handicap,” William Hill book director Nick Bogdanovich said.
VSiN’s Brent Musburger is picking the Warriors in six games and said, “I would make it five with Durant back, but that remains questionable.”
So how was the series line made? Start with Game 1 on Thursday in Toronto. The opening line of Warriors
-1 has moved to pick’em at William Hill and Raptors
-1 at the Westgate SuperBook.
“You figure out the point spreads and it becomes a math problem,” said SuperBook oddsmaker Jeff Sherman, who used pick’em as the lines for the games in Toronto and Warriors -6½ for the games in Oakland.
After factoring the money lines attached to each game, Sherman opened Golden State as the -275 favorite. The first significant bet on Saturday night was for $5,000 on the Warriors, pushing the price to -300, which equates to about a 73 percent chance of winning.
“I don’t think Durant’s going to be available,” Sherman said. “I still have my doubts about it. We here have the feeling that he’s not going to be back at all.”
Durant is expected to miss at least the first two games in Toronto. If things were normal and Durant were at full strength, Sherman said the Warriors would be at least -500 series favorites and 8½-point home favorites.
“A star player of Durant’s stature is usually worth about five points, but Golden State keeps proving that’s not his worth, and that’s not to fault him,” Bogdanovich said. “The Raptors just beat some pretty damn good teams from the East in Philadelphia and Milwaukee, so I think they can hang. I don’t think it will be a walkover whatsoever.”
The underdog role is nothing new for the East entry. Instead of LeBron James and the Cavaliers, who went 1-8 against the Warriors in the past two Finals, it’s Kawhi Leonard leading the Raptors this time. Leonard played like the league MVP in the conference finals, and Toronto seems to match up well with its defensive versatility and size.
Unlike some talk-show airheads, oddsmakers do not spend time debating whether Golden State is a better team without Durant, whose return definitely would increase the Warriors’ chances of winning. Still, the core four of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala can win without the “Slim Reaper.” The team is 31-1 the past 32 times when Durant is out and Curry plays.
The Warriors’ success without him has to bother Durant, who’s strangely sensitive to even mild criticism. It’s realistic to think he would like to see Toronto take a lead in the series before he comes back to save the day and preserve his Golden State legacy on his way out of Oakland.
Without Durant, are the Warriors fragile favorites or still fully capable of whipping the Raptors and now available at a bargain price?
“I make the Warriors a favorite in the series, however, not as high as the market number,” said Erin Rynning, a VSiN analyst and professional bettor who’s picking Toronto in seven games. “I’ve made a wager on the Raptors to win the series. I’m impressed by the road to the Finals by the Raptors in beating the Bucks and Sixers, while flexing immense defensive muscle. They garnered important confidence-building wins that were vacant in the playoffs without Kawhi. Of course, the Warriors have continually found that higher level, but the bar will need to go much higher to defeat the Raptors.”
Rex Beyers, an operational account manager at Sportradar and former oddsmaker in Costa Rica, disagrees with the series line and is picking the Warriors in five.
“My personal price for the Finals is -600, much higher than what the market opened Saturday,” Beyers said. “It’s probably more of an indictment of a LeBron-less East than anything else. But with Toronto as a Game 1 favorite, the series price could never come that high. Still, I can’t make a case for anyone beating Golden State four times and, with or without Durant, Toronto would be doing well to get this series out to California a second time for Game 6.”
Bogdanovich said he expected sharp money to show on the Raptors in the series opener.
“If Toronto is going to do something, it would be Game 1 with home court and no Durant,” he said.
The SuperBook opened Finals MVP odds Sunday with Curry as the 2/3 favorite, followed by Leonard (11-4), Green (10/1) and Thompson (14/1). Durant was lowered from 10/1 to 20/1. The first bet was on Green for $300. All bets are action, so if Durant does not play there are no refunds.
The Warriors are 18-1 in Game 1 of a playoff series with Steve Kerr as coach, but Sherman said he leans to the Raptors partly because of a 10-day layoff for Golden State.
“All the rest, I think it’s a negative,” Sherman said. “I feel like this is a must-win game for Toronto. If the Raptors lose this one, the series could get away quickly.
“The uncertainty of Durant is probably going to scare some people from investing a little bit. Minus Durant, I think Toronto can put a scare into these guys.”