NBA’s version of Final Four determined, NBA playoffs are here

May 17, 2011 6:00 AM

The NBA’s version of the Final Four has been determined and neither of the teams that battled in last season’s NBA Finals is among them.

Replacing Boston as the Eastern Conference representative in the NBA Finals will be the winner of the series between top seeded Chicago and second seeded Miami. That series got underway this past Sunday and after a first half that ended tied at 48 Chicago took control in the third quarter and coasted to an easy 103-82 win to take an early 1-0 lead in their best of 7.

The pricing for the series was rather interesting as despite holding the home court advantage as the conference’s top seed, Chicago was a solid underdog to advance to the NBA Finals. And not just that, Chicago figures to be favored in each of their possible four home games.

Perhaps the reason for Miami being roughly a -190 favorite (with the take back on Chicago roughly +165) is that most sports books have rather significant liabilities in the future books on Miami based on wagers made since LeBron James’ "Decision" last summer to take his talents to South Beach.

Money has steadily flowed in on Miami to win both the Eastern Conference Title and the NBA Title ever since. Making Miami a larger favorite than the odds might otherwise suggest could well be an attempt to attract money on Chicago to lessen the exposure should Miami advance.

That’s what often makes futures betting attractive once post season fields are determined in the sports that hold playoffs (baseball, college and pro basketball, the NHL and the NFL). Often you are able to find attractively priced teams with real chances of winning it all that represent overlays based on money that has been wagered all season on more high profile teams.

And, as we can see from the Chicago/Miami illustration, such overlays can occur even after the playoffs have had one or more rounds completed.

As to the balance of the Eastern Conference finals Chicago is favored by from 1½ to 2 points in Wednesday’s Game 2, the same line as Game 1.

Sunday’s 21 point win by the Bulls was the most decisive result in four games between the teams this season, including three regular season meetings, all won by Chicago. At the short price the Bulls remain an attractive play to take a 2-0 lead in the series.

In many series there is value in playing the road team to win at least one of the first two games. But usually the road team is a sizeable underdog in both of those contests. In fact, all 12 home teams were favored by at least 5 points in the opening games of the first and second rounds of the playoffs.

That also holds true in the Western Conference finals between Oklahoma City and Dallas that begin on Tuesday.

The hype surrounding Miami and their trio of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh has been sustained for so long that Miami has become one of the biggest ‘public" teams in recent memory. And while the Heat may indeed advance to the NBA Finals and perhaps win it all the value remains in playing AGAINST Miami in most situations.

Chicago has several fundamental edges over Miami, not the least of which is in rebounding. Such an edge is often enough to overcome lower shooting percentages as was the case for the Bulls in Game 1.

Even though Miami was embarrassed in losing Game 1, and will be a popular play in Game 2, the value remains with Chicago at a line which suggests the Bulls merely need to win the game to cover the point spread.

Miami would make for a solid play returning home for Game 3 that will be played next Sunday. The Heat will likely be favored by 6, possibly more if down 0-2. Chicago would be the play in Game 4 next Tuesday if either leading or trailing 2-1 in the series. Should the Bulls be in the unlikely position of going for a 4 game sweep Miami would be the play if laying 4 or less.

Ordinarily the value in a game that could result in a sweep lies with the team looking to accomplish that feat. But in this specific situation Miami would be under pressure to avoid the sweep and what would make for an intolerable offseason. A better option might well be a first half play on Miami if they are seeking to avoid a four game sweep.

The call is for Chicago to win the series in 6 games. Despite the greater notoriety enjoyed by the Heat, Chicago has been the better defensive team this season and was playing their best basketball down the stretch of the regular season when the caught and overtook San Antonio for the NBA’s best record.

First season coach Tom Thibodeaux has done a great job in getting the Bulls to this level. His experience as the architect of a Celtics defense that often frustrated James in his Cleveland days has carried over to the Bulls and they will be a tough foe for either Miami, or the team that comes from the west, to eliminate.

In the West, Dallas will take the court after nine days of inactivity following its four game sweep of the Lakers a week ago this past Sunday.

Oklahoma City needed the full 7 to get by Memphis, that pesky eighth seed that defeated San Antonio in the first round.

Third seeded Dallas opened as a 5 point favorite over the fourth seeded Thunder and the line has risen to 6 as we go to press. For the series Dallas is favored in the range of -220 to minus 240 with the take back on Oklahoma City in the neighborhood of +200.

The regular season series between the Mavericks and Thunder was most interesting as the road team won all three contests. Dallas won the first two meetings in Oklahoma City by 8 and 10 points before the Thunder won by 4 points in Dallas. But that meeting came way back on January 6 so these teams have not met in 4½ months.

For the season these games finished just 2 games apart in the standing as Dallas won 57 games and Oklahoma City 55. Including the playoffs the teams are an identical 28-12 over their last 40 games.

These teams match up nicely against one another and this series has an excellent chance at going the full seven games, making Oklahoma City an attractively priced underdog.

The Thunder certainly make for an attractive play to win at least one of the first two games that will be played in Dallas. The Mavs figure to be a bit rusty when the series begins on Tuesday and, unlike the Eastern series, this series is scheduled to be played every other day for as long as the series lasts.

The strategy for playing this series would be to play Oklahoma City in Game 1 and, if losing straight up, to play them again in Thursday’s Game 2wo (even if covering Game 1). Should Oklahoma City pull an upset in the opening game, the play in Game 2 would be Dallas although the line may well be a point or so higher than the price in Game 1.

The play on Dallas would be stronger if negatively effected by a lengthy period of inactivity (I.e. "rust" prevailed over "rest").

Once the series moves to Oklahoma City for Game 3 on Saturday the play would be on the Thunder if down 0-2. Dallas would make for an attractive play if down 0-2 or tied 1-1.

Game 4 will be played next Monday and the play would be either on the team going for a 4 game sweep or on the team looking to square the series at 2-2.

The projection here is for Dallas to win the series in either 6 or 7 with the series having a real chance at becoming a best of 3 after four games.

Both series shall be revisited in next week’s column as the start of the NBA Finals on June second drawing close.