The seeding games have ended, and the money is now in the middle of the table. The NBA’s bubble games have turned out to be as wonky as I predicted, with effort and motivation coming and going depending on the night.
But they were fun and they were unique. Some pro bettors laid off toward the end or pulled way back because they like precedent. It gives them some basis from which to make their bets, and these last two weeks showed a completely unprecedented set of circumstances. Games were labeled as “regular season,” but that was mostly to fulfill contractual obligations with regional sports networks that required at least 70 games. Many teams magically landed just north of that number.
These games provided a historic upset, as Brooklyn shocked Milwaukee and the betting world as 20-point dogs, + 1500 on the moneyline. The Overs and the dogs did well as many of the top teams tried to get a good game or two under their belts before riding the brake the rest of the ride home to the playoffs.
Many thought these games would never take place and the restart would never get off the ground. Thankfully, those predictions were wrong, as the NBA has brought back these games without a hitch. Even Phoenix, whose presence in Orlando many thought was unnecessary, showed remarkably well, winning all eight games despite falling short of a play-in opportunity. Pre-bubble the Suns were 200-1 to qualify for the playoffs, and had Caris LeVert made a key shot against Portland, they would have earned a play-in opportunity.
Hats off to Brooklyn for doing a favor not only for Phoenix but for the entire sport. Playing against Portland with effort and integrity, giving Phoenix a chance to qualify and treating fans to a wildly entertaining game was something most teams, teams with much lesser talent, would not have done. It is to be commended. It was good for the league and for fans to see the Nets compete the way they did. The fact that the ball was in the air with a chance to give them a victory as the buzzer sounded is more than anyone could have asked.
Lots of people have said the neutral-court playoffs would help lower seeds stay competitive. I totally disagree. I think this format will lead to series being shorter, not longer. The playoffs follow a predictable pattern. The lower seed trails 2-0 but has the security blanket of Games 3 and 4 at home. Often, with the support of raucous home fans, the trailing team comes out swinging and wins Game 3. Now there is no security blanket. A team trailing 2-0 will be on a neutral court, knowing it needs to beat a superior team four times out of five with no home games.
These teams will soon be approaching two months in the bubble, away from their homes, families and regular lives. Once they see that this restart won’t end with a title, they will be more apt to look for exits than to mount a furious rally. Obviously, if the lower seed can force a Game 7, the neutral site becomes a huge advantage compared with the task of winning it on the road.
Moving along to best bets …
MILWAUKEE -12.5 vs. Orlando (Game 2).
The Bucks weren’t motivated in the bubble, they had no reason to be and they haven’t had an incentive to go all out since forever. Now, after shockingly getting throttled in their playoff opener, it’s time for Milwaukee to return the favor and prove a point in Game 2. After blowing a 2-0 lead to Toronto in the 2019 Eastern Conference finals, Milwaukee entered the season knowing it would be judged by its postseason success. The Bucks have the league’s best record and have won most of their games in blowouts. They have barely been pushed all year, but the wait to get the bad taste out of their mouths is finally here. Orlando is without Jonathan Isaac, and this series gives me flashbacks to last spring when the 1-8 matchup resulted in Milwaukee drubbing Detroit by 23.75 points per game in a four-game destruction. Despite the Magic’ eye-popping upset Tuesday, it’s Milwaukee big to even the series.
Clippers/Dallas correct series score: Los Angeles in 5 (+ 300). For all of Dallas’ offensive prowess, the other side of the ball is a huge problem, especially in this series. Dallas is like a Big 12 college football team that might throw seven TD passes but surrender eight. The Clippers are an SEC team. On their best day, they are Alabama. They are uniquely qualified to handle Luka Doncic with wing defenders like Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The regular-season series went 3-0 in L.A.’s favor. Expect the dominance to continue in the playoffs.
Miami/Indiana correct series score: Miami in 5 (+ 350). As gritty as Indiana is, I think the Pacers drew a tough card here. Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler are the best players in the series, and both play for Miami. Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis have been All-Stars the last couple of years for Indiana, but neither is healthy. The Pacers struggle to get to the line, finishing this season dead last in free throw rate. Points will be tough to come by for Indiana, which does not generate the volume of 3-point looks needed to hang with a talented Miami team that will give Milwaukee fits in Round 2. Call it a gentleman’s sweep: Miami in five.