It feels like last NBA season just ended, and just like that, another one has come and gone. The Lakers hoisted the trophy Oct. 11 and then seven weeks later opened their regular season, which ended Sunday. It was basically two years rolled into one with a quick catnap in between. Injuries, rest, blowouts and, yes, the dreaded “health and safety protocols” are why this season will be remembered, even if we’d prefer it be forgotten.
Sunday provided a great sports day, with the Stanley Cup playoffs underway and the NBA giving us an NFL Week 17 vibe with all the machinations and scenarios that were viable. The NBA might go a long time without getting as lucky as it got this year, as the play-in round was given a jolt by sheer luck. The Wizards-Hornets and Warriors-Grizzlies matchups meant both conferences had direct play-ins to the actual play-ins. The Warriors and Wizards not only clinched No. 8 seeds with their victories, but both went Over their closing season win totals by a half-game. The Warriors had been 33-33 with a win total of 38.5, so they needed to run the table and defeat the Jazz and Suns en route to finish the season 6-0 and cash the Over. The Wizards started 3-12, overcame a two-week layoff and completed a furious rally to reward Over bettors with a trip to the window. For a wager on a 72-game season, Wizards bettors’ sweat came down to the last minute of the last game. Sunday was a delightful appetizer to what should be a five-star meal, a postseason with fans and home courts back in play. Let’s take a look at what these playoffs have to offer.
Denver Nuggets (-115) Series Price Over Portland Trail Blazers
This is a rematch of the Western Conference semifinal two years ago that went seven games, including a four-overtime classic. The Blazers won the seventh game on Mother’s Day, in Denver, the same day as Kawhi Leonard’s iconic buzzer-beating shot against the Sixers. I was shocked at this line. I expected it to be up around the -150 range. The Blazers are a bit of a fan and media darling. We saw this last year with the bizarre support they got when many picked them to upset the Lakers in the playoffs. Damian Lillard is a phenomenal player. He and CJ McCollum come from small schools, and being small themselves gives Portland the feel of a lovable mid-major. The Blazers can score, but they are poor defensively and have struggled against superior competition all year, fattening up with a 28-8 record against sub-.500 teams but going just 14-22 against teams that are over .500. The Nuggets pivoted well to life without star guard Jamal Murray, winning nine of their first 10 games after his season-ending surgery and earning the No. 3 seed. Michael Porter Jr. has reminded all of us why he was in the mix to be the first draft pick entering college, and he has blossomed into an outstanding scorer. “Correct series score” is not a prop I see available at this moment, but my initial lean is the Nuggets will win this series in five or six games. I’d be surprised if it goes seven, and I’d be even more surprised if the Nuggets don’t advance. Lillard likely will shoot Portland to a win, maybe even two, but I love the Nuggets to cash in this series bet.
Atlanta Hawks (-115) Series Price Over New York Knicks
It’s a shame Madison Square Garden won’t be packed to see their beloved upstart Knicks host — yes, host — this first-round series. The Knicks’ season win total was 22 entering the year, one of the lowest in the league, and they were one of the longest options available in “odds to make the playoffs.” A full building still might not have swayed me to pick the Knicks, but it might have kept me off this series altogether. The Hawks got swept in the season series 3-0 but were a different team in the second half of the year after coach Lloyd Pierce was dismissed and the roster returned to full health. The Knicks got an all-NBA-caliber season out of Julius Randle and played with consistent intensity in a season when effort was not always a given around the league. But I think in the playoffs, when that effort will be matched by their opponents, the Knicks will lose to the superior talent. This will likely be a long series, and an entertaining one, but I think the Knicks’ Cinderella run will end here.
Los Angeles Lakers (-4.5) Over Golden State Warriors
Four future Hall of Famers and the last six Western Conference champions will be on the same court in Game 1. This line opened at 6.5, and I certainly understand the sentiment for the Warriors. But down at this number, I like the Lakers. Steph Curry is obviously a lethal shooter and a dynamic all-time great player, and the Lakers can be erratic shooting from behind the arc. However, this is a lopsided matchup in terms of rosters, assuming Anthony Davis and LeBron James are relatively healthy, and it at least appears they are. The Lakers have an athletic roster and will throw two defenders at Curry at all times, forcing the likes of Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins to beat them. If the Lakers can build a sizable lead, Steve Kerr knows he has another game to play with and might take the approach of living to fight another day. The champs have a much better roster, and I think they’ll remind everyone they are still a force to be reckoned with.