NBA bubble brings madness to August

With games tipping off in the morning, afternoon and evening, August madness has arrived. Adam Silver’s bubble vision for the NBA is a big hit with bettors and bookmakers.

Basketball fans who were cheated out of the NCAA tournament, which was stunningly canceled in March, are finally getting a hoops fix during a month normally reserved for football hype. The NBA playoffs not only promise to be a betting blockbuster, the chances of college tournament-type upsets are higher than ever.

Because each game in Orlando, Fla., is played on a neutral court and the entire atmosphere is a new experience, the favorites have more to fear. Is that Cinderella calling?

“It’s usually a No. 1 or 2 seed in the NBA Finals,” William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich said. “The best-of-seven series is always so strong with the best team having an extra game at home, but these playoffs should be crazy. I think it’s wide open. Not anyone, but almost anyone can win it.”

If the 88 seeding games of the last two weeks were a hint of what’s coming, the top seeds in the East (Bucks, Raptors) and West (Lakers, Clippers) have been put on upset alert. Underdogs went 44-42-1 against the spread — with one pick-’em game — during the restart. The Bucks (3-5 SU and ATS) and Lakers (3-5 SU, 1-7 ATS) looked especially vulnerable, although both lacked motivation with No. 1 seeds secured.

Favorites swept the board in Monday’s four games, but three of the underdogs went down fighting. Denver needed overtime to cover against Utah before the Celtics and Clippers each cashed with narrow covers. The Clippers, who closed as seven-point favorites in a 118-110 victory over the Mavericks, were especially fortunate. Dallas was leading early in the third quarter when Kristaps Porzingis was tossed in a dubious ejection.

The Westgate SuperBook recently moved the Clippers to NBA championship favorites at 5-2 odds, with the Lakers and Bucks each at + 325. Boston (8-1) and Toronto (10-1) are the main threats to Milwaukee in the East. In fact, the Bucks were upset 122-110 by the Magic in their playoff opener.

“There’s something about the Bucks that I don’t trust,” Westgate oddsmaker Jeff Sherman said. “I still contend a healthy Clippers team is the best team in basketball. But even if you think it’s going to be between the Lakers and Clippers in the West, I don’t think they are just going to run through teams.”

The Rockets (20-1), Thunder (30-1) and Trail Blazers (40-1) appear to be the most dangerous dogs in the West. Houston and Oklahoma City meet in a first-round series that tipped Tuesday, with William Hill pricing the Rockets as -150 series favorites. Although all eight playoff series are underway, there will be opportunities to bet adjusted series prices along the way.

James Harden has been hot in the bubble, averaging 35.3 points and shooting 54%. The Rockets, who play small-ball and fire 3-pointers at a rapid clip, will be without point guard Russell Westbrook (strained right quadriceps) for the start of the playoffs.

“The Rockets are certainly a wild card,” said Erin Rynning, a professional bettor and VSiN analyst. “I think there are a number of wild cards and, to me, that’s one of the biggest differences this year as compared to recent seasons. The last several seasons, you pretty much knew there were three or four teams that would be in the NBA Finals.

“If you get in a seven-game series with the Rockets and they start knocking down 3s and gaining some confidence, you can get beat in a long series. But I’m not sure the Rockets can win the title.”

Westbrook’s uncertain status is one reason Rynning said he’s eyeing the Thunder as an under-the-radar pick. Chris Paul has led Oklahoma City to an NBA-best 44-28 ATS mark. The Thunder offer the better defense, and their size should wear down the Rockets, Rynning said.

The Clippers are my pick to win the West, and the reasons go beyond stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Clippers not only have more quality depth than the Lakers, coach Doc Rivers’ team features several lockdown defenders and much better perimeter shooting. Still, nothing in the West will come easily.

Damian Lillard’s red-shot shooting and relentless playmaking carried the Blazers to the No. 8 seed opposite the Lakers, who went into the series as -500 first-round favorites. LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma probably have too much firepower for Portland in a long series, but the Lakers have plenty of long-term concerns.

Avery Bradley, their best perimeter defender, opted not to return in July, and backup point guard Rajon Rondo will miss the first round with a fractured thumb. Depth is a problem, as is shooting — the Lakers ranked last in 3-point-shooting percentage (30.3) in the last eight games.

“After watching the Lakers, I had to lower their power rating,” Rynning said. “I was down on the Lakers entering the bubble, and their play offered more evidence of cracks in the foundation. It's difficult to pull these upsets off traditionally in the NBA playoffs. However, a small shot is worthy on the Blazers, who have been in playoff mode for two weeks, while the Lakers’ play feels more like a Disney vacation.

“To win an NBA title, at some point the curious cast of characters surrounding Davis and James must come through. I would be surprised if the Lakers win the title. I have real interest in betting the ‘No’ prop offered by Circa Sports on the Lakers not to win the Western Conference and NBA championship.”

It’s difficult to disagree with Sherman, who said he would be surprised to see any team outside the top five on the odds board — Clippers, Lakers, Bucks, Celtics and Raptors — reach the NBA Finals. Denver (20-1) and Miami (40-1) might also be capable of creating some postseason drama, however.

“You could look at some of the teams around 25-1 odds, like Houston and Oklahoma City, but I don’t think you will see Cinderella teams,” Sherman said. “You are not going to see 6, 7 or 8 seeds making the Finals like in college basketball. You are not going to see a team that’s a 100-1 shot. I don’t think you’ll see a team like the Pacers win it.”

Sherman said the Westgate has seen “big bets left and right” on the futures board, including $8,000 on the Nuggets at 25-1, $7,000 on the Rockets at 20-1 and a $20,000 play on the Lakers at + 160 to win the West. None of those wagers would be considered sharp.

These two bets are sharper: BetMGM reported a $20,000 wager on the Clippers to win the NBA title at + 320 and a $14,500 bet on the Celtics to win the East at 6-1.

My prediction of a Celtics-Clippers Finals matchup is obviously not a Cinderella storyline.

The reality of the NCAA tournament is the underdog stories usually die by the end of the second round, and the same should hold true in these NBA playoffs, where the neutral-court bracket has a college feel to it.

“I really like how there are games spaced out all day,” Sherman said. “It’s a dynamic we have not had before in the NBA.”

Most bookmakers say the Lakers are attracting the largest wagers. It’s not March, but the books are in the midst of madness from a betting perspective.

“Incredible is the only word I can say,” Bogdanovich said. “There’s so much money in the (futures) pot it’s unbelievable. I would like to see a Clippers-Bucks or Lakers-Bucks final — either would be good.”

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