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Raptors flexing muscles in bubble

The first semifinal series set in stone in the Orlando bubble may very well be the best one.

While we still have to wait and see whether the Clippers survive the Mavericks and Houston gets Russell Westbrook back in time to overcome Oklahoma City, the Eastern Conference’s 2-3 matchup is sure to be tremendous because it features a team you’re going to want to ultimately want to back to win the conference.

The Milwaukee Bucks, despite their struggles in Orlando’s seeding games and their Game 1 loss to the Magic, will face the Heat in one Eastern Conference semifinal. Miami could win that series if everything breaks right but will undoubtedly be a heavy underdog.

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Toronto and Boston, seeded second and third in the East, will be given a much better chance to knock off the Bucks, who remain a 3-1 choice at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook to win the NBA title. Those are the same odds the Clippers and Lakers had placed on them, making the three co-favorites in this most unconventional of NBA seasons.

Without homecourt advantage, a Bucks team that dominated in its home arena suddenly looks vulnerable. Although getting into Canada to face the Raptors did carry its own set of obstacles, neither Toronto nor Boston are affected by not having a home-court edge to lean on the way the Bucks will be. For starters, Milwaukee would’ve had the benefit of hosting every Game 1 and Game 7 due to the NBA’s best record. That’s now out the window.

Toronto and Boston know each other well, having played the four times they were scheduled to get together this season. The most recent meeting occurred on Aug. 7, a 122-100 Celtics victory you can throw out the window since Toronto missed nine of its first 10 shots and ultimately lost interest. That was easy to do in seeding games.

Now that they’re playing for keeps, things will be completely different.

Kemba Walker is healthy. The steps that Boston took to ensure their point guard recovered from a balky knee have paid off. Kyle Lowry isn’t healthy. Toronto’s leader is dealing with an ankle sprain that will likely be an issue throughout the series.

And that’s where I let you in to how this handicapping game is played. The spread is inconsequential early. Toronto is favored by 2 points. Lowry is expected to play in Thursday’s Game 1. Value would be on the Celtics given the likelihood that Toronto’s point guard won’t be 100 percent, but “value” is often an overused silly term in our game.

Who’s to say that Fred VanVleet won’t step up as a result of Lowry feeling limited? Pascal Siakam, the player whose star shined brightest upon Kawhi Leonard’s departure, hasn’t rebounded as well as he did before the pandemic hit. He’ll be tasked with helping O.G. Anunoby contain Jayson Tatum.

In Tatum, the Celtics have the best player in the series. The St. Louis native and Kobe Bryant disciple has become a player who most NBA observers now lump into the MVP conversation. For this year.

Going forward, barring injury, he’ll be lumped in with LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden. That’s earned. But the former No. 3 pick who Danny Ainge famously said he’d have taken first ahead of Markelle Fultz has struggled against the Raptors. He’s averaged just 16.5 points over their four games, three of which have been Boston wins. He’s shot under 38 percent.

If Tatum can’t find his rhythm early, the Raptors have a huge edge in the series since they’re the deeper group.

Thursday

Celtics vs. Raptors -2: I expect Toronto to win Game 1 whether Lowry is healthy or not. Consider that two of their top lineups include Norman Powell and Anunoby, who are each expected to see their minutes increase if Lowry can’t go.

I recommend riding the money line instead of laying points, but if Lowry is missing, you’ll likely see Game 1 end up closer to a pick’em anyway. RAPTORS

Heat vs. Bucks: We’ve been on a heater in the Orlando bubble, so let’s continue the good times beyond this Game 1 take that has the Raptors winning. Ride Miami to cover against Milwaukee in their series opener.

Jimmy Butler appreciates the opportunity to shut down Antetokounmpo because he’s built that way, while Bam Adebayo’s length also aids the cause. Khris Middleton has struggled in Orlando and will have his work cut out for him against the Heat. Take the points with the Heat against the Bucks in their Game 1. HEAT

Friday

Rockets vs. Thunder: Out West, we’re going to continue to ride the Thunder despite Russell Westbrook returning to aid the Rockets’ cause. Houston took the first two games, but Billy Donovan has figured out how to better match up against microball. Look for Oklahoma City to take Game 6 outright. THUNDER

Last week: 1-2

Season: 37-28-1