As the first round of the NBA playoffs winds down, we brace ourselves for what should be an epic second round in Orlando, Fla. Both conference semifinals in the East have a chance to be classics, as Raptors-Celtics will begin Thursday and Heat-Bucks will start this weekend.
Some of these series have been short, as predicted, but in others the underdogs have been feistier than anticipated. Anyone without skin in the game is still beaming from the thrilling finish Luka Doncic and Dallas provided Sunday against the Clippers. And Houston let Games 3 and 4 slip away against Oklahoma City, giving us an even series that could be headed for the distance. The Lakers and Bucks have drowned the memory of Game 1 losses, each running off three consecutive double-digit victories to take command of their series.
Overs continue to sizzle. Some of these teams simply can’t defend playoff-caliber offenses (yes, you, Denver). It’s also possible that playing in the same building night after night provides shooters comfort, not having to travel, not having to adapt to changing backdrops and sight lines.
These first playoff games also have shown how dramatically size has been de-emphasized. It’s clear the NBA is no longer about how good your big men are. The more important question is: How many shooters can you get on the floor? Having two non-shooters on the court puts a team at a severe handicap. Spacing and shooting have been the growing trend in the league for several years, and it’s strengthening, not reversing.
On to the best bets …
Bucks (-13.5) over Magic, Game 5. Orlando’s stunning upset in Game 1 got the Bucks’ attention. They have controlled the three ensuing games, and I expect a sense of urgency to close this out since the Heat have already swept the Pacers and gained a couple of extra days’ rest. The Magic had their moment, and their historic upset last week was something bettors will always remember. It’s also a great lesson: There’s no such thing as a lock. But down 3-1, the reality is that this monumental upset is no longer reasonable. Expect Milwaukee to jump to a big lead and pull away.
Heat + 275 (series price) over Bucks. The Magic got in a few punches, but this next Florida team is capable of finishing the fight. It was only one loss, but that Magic upset in Game 1 has to startle Bucks backers. The Magic dominated from start to finish, decisively and convincingly. Last year in Game 1 of the second round, the Celtics delivered a similar right hand to the Bucks, foreshadowing the Bucks’ eventual demise. They still have questions to answer. Do they have a legitimate second star? Most title teams usually do. Can they score in the half-court? Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and mentor Pat Riley will have a week to devise a game plan to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo away from the rim and make him a jump shooter. They might also have the athletes to do just that. Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and Andre Iguodala have the size and length to give the Bucks fits on the perimeter. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has had some noteworthy playoff disappointments. Up 2-0 last year against the Raptors and with the ball in overtime of Game 3, they had the last shot. They missed, eventually lost that game and never won another, losing 4-2 despite being one of the top 20 teams ever in point differential. Budenholzer coached the 60-win Hawks team that was the No. 1 seed in 2015. They were swept in the conference finals. More rest, more depth and better coaching point in favor of the juicy underdog. Take the Heat to advance.
Raptors -130 (series price) over Celtics. This highly anticipated series is such an even matchup. Unfortunately for the Raptors, perhaps the most consequential ramification of no home-court advantage is that a very possible Game 7 will not be in Toronto. That home-court edge was one the defending champs worked diligently to obtain. They went over their season win total of 41.5 in March before the pandemic shut down the league. They were 10-1 preseason dogs to win the Atlantic Division over co-favorites Philadelphia and Boston, and they made good on the bet. They are looking to reward anyone who took them at lofty 40-1 odds to win the East or 70-1 to win the title. Wow. What a bet if you have that in your pocket. I like the Raptors to advance one step closer to paying off those odds. Their size and depth will cause problems for a thin Celtics team that is not great in the front court and lacks size and depth, especially without Gordon Hayward. In a battle of two of the best coaches and fairly even rosters, go with the team that has found ways all year to overcome the odds by winning with effort, defense and a culture of success.