Lakers must sweat out tough NBA Finals

When the longest season in NBA history finally ends, expect to see LeBron James celebrating his fourth championship and first with the Los Angeles Lakers. Crowds of bettors will line up to cash futures tickets while Las Vegas bookmakers count their losses.

That’s what is expected, based on the odds, win-probability models and the sense that this Lakers run is scripted by a Hollywood screenwriter.

But if you have eyes and a high basketball IQ, you also expect to see the Miami Heat make the Lakers and their bettors sweat out this NBA Finals. Always respect an underdog with a great coach and tough players, and Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo are about as blue-collar tough as it gets.

The Lakers deserve to be the favorites due to James and Anthony Davis, the most talented players in the series, but the Heat did not go to Disney World to clown around and crown LeBron. When the series tips off Wednesday night, expect to see a determined dog.

“I think it will be competitive, but I don’t think it will get to seven games,” said Jeff Sherman, the top NBA oddsmaker at the Westgate SuperBook. “I don’t see the Heat beating the Lakers unless there are injuries. It’s such a superstar-driven league, and the Lakers have the two best players on the court. LeBron looks like he’s determined right now to get this done.”

Sherman, a lifelong Lakers fan, is capable of being impartial as an oddsmaker yet seems to be dismissing the Heat as just a tiny annoyance in the way of James and his destiny.

On Sunday, Sherman opened the Lakers as -450 series favorites. When he showed up to work Monday morning, he said, “The ticket count was 17-to-1 on the Heat.”

The price has been adjusted to -360, with the takeback on the Heat dropping from + 375 to + 300. The initial line looked too high, and Miami is getting the respect it deserves as an underdog that is 12-3 in the playoffs and ran through Milwaukee and Boston to dominate the Eastern Conference.

It’s a championship series with a surplus of sensational made-for-TV storylines. James is facing the Heat, the franchise he led to his first two NBA titles in 2012 and ’13. He left in 2014, when ill will developed between James and team President Pat Riley, who won four championships in seven years as coach of the “Showtime” Lakers in the 1980s.

The Lakers are back in the Finals for the first time since 2010, when Kobe Bryant won his fifth and final title. James joined the Lakers in part to follow in the footsteps of one of his idols, Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash Jan. 26. This title would be James’ emotional tribute to Bryant and his family.

But none of that matters to Butler, Adebayo, veteran point guard Goran Dragic and Eric Spoelstra, the coach whom James once attempted to get fired but eventually came to admire. Spoelstra is a sharp strategist who just took down Celtics coach Brad Stevens and could do the same to the Lakers’ Frank Vogel.

Spoelstra mixed in a zone defense to confuse the Celtics’ talented guards, and he’ll certainly use it against the Lakers, who tend to run cold with their perimeter shooting. The Heat match up well defensively, with Butler and others capable of harassing James while Adebayo provides the low-post defense and rim protection required against Davis and the Lakers’ big men.

“I’m interested to see how the zone defense will be because we’ve seen the Lakers struggle from 3-point distance in the bubble,” said Erin Rynning, a professional bettor and VSiN analyst. “The Lakers have not had to really turn it up to that high of a notch yet.”

That’s another way of saying the Lakers were not forced to face the stiffest competition in the West, where Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead against Denver and went home with a whimper.

Meanwhile, the Heat had to go through two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the top-seeded Bucks before fending off Jayson Tatum and the Celtics.

Miami presents defensive challenges the Lakers avoided while dismissing Portland, Houston and Denver. The Lakers crushed those teams in the paint and rank No. 1 in points per miss (.23) in the playoffs, but their offensive rebounding ability should be diminished against the Heat. Adebayo has averaged 11.2 rebounds in the playoffs.

It’s also worth remembering the Lakers lost Game 1 against both the Trail Blazers and small-ball Rockets before adjusting and controlling the rest of the series. However, Portland lost star guard Damian Lillard to injury during the series, and Houston was handcuffed by Russell Westbrook’s poor play. The Lakers knocked out the Nuggets in five games, but they needed Davis’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer to escape with a Game 2 win.

“The Lakers obviously have the best two players in the series, and maybe they can just overwhelm Miami, but I think Game 1 is the Heat’s to go get or at least stay inside the number,” Rynning said. “I bet the Heat + 5 in Game 1. I made (the line) 3 and lean to the Heat anyway.”

Another way to play the Heat might be in the first quarter and first half. Miami led the NBA in net rating in first quarters, outscoring opponents by more than 12 points per 100 possessions. The Heat’s net rating drops significantly in the third and fourth quarters. In the teams’ two regular-season meetings, the Lakers outscored the Heat by an average of 10.5 points in the third quarters, a trend to keep in mind for in-game wagering purposes.

The Orlando bubble helps the Heat. In a normal postseason, the Lakers would have been stronger favorites with home-court advantage. Favorites are barely above water at 38-35-3 against the spread during the playoffs.

“From what I’ve seen in the bubble in the playoffs, we have been getting a lot more support for the underdogs than in previous years,” Sherman said.

James was so impressive in the clinching Game 5 victory over the Nuggets — 38 points, 16 rebounds, 10 assists and only two turnovers — that Sherman said he cannot see him getting denied this close to the L.A. title he covets. Sherman is picking the Lakers in six games.

No matter who wins, the talk of attaching an asterisk to this championship is nonsense. The opposite is actually true, because this will have been the most difficult title to win.

The Lakers opened the 2019-20 season Oct. 22 with a 10-point loss to the Clippers, and they will finish it almost a full year later on a neutral court in Florida.

In the meantime, there was Bryant’s death, a March 11 postponement to the season because of the coronavirus pandemic, a July restart with no fans and a pause to play in August when players protested racial inequality and police brutality. At times, it seemed there would be no end to this season and no NBA champion. Some Lakers, including Dwight Howard, were hesitant to keep playing, and their best defensive guard, Avery Bradley, did not return.

The betting public stuck with the Lakers the entire way, even when the Clippers looked like the superior team. Sherman said the Westgate faces “low six figures” in futures liability if the Lakers win the championship. The bookmakers need the Heat to flip the script.

I like the Heat’s chances in Game 1 and expect to see James sweat out a long series. My pick is the Lakers in seven.

 

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