As we go to press on Monday the first games of the two Eastern Conference semifinal series have been played. The matchups for the Western Conference’s second round were each determined over this past weekend.
The first round went almost perfectly to form in the West with the top two seeds, San Antonio and Oklahoma City, each pulling off four games sweeps of Utah and defending NBA champs Dallas, respectively.
The third seeded Los Angeles Lakers needed the full seven games to get by Denver. The Lakers’ Staples Center co-tenants, the Clippers, pulled off the only first round upset when, as the fifth seed, they defeated Memphis in seven, winning that final game, of course, on the road.
Form only partially held true in the Eastern Conference where the biggest upset, as determined by seeding, was not all that unexpected given the unique set of circumstances that surrounded that series.
Top seeded Chicago lost last season’s MVP, Derrick Rose, at the end of their opening game against Philadelphia. Two games later they lost Joakim Noah, their major inside presence. Devoid of both stars proved too much for the Bulls to overcome and they were ousted by eighth seeded Philadelphia in six.
Second seeded Miami had little difficulty in dispatching New York in just five. The Knicks had to endure key injuries as well, but showed some grit in winning Game four to end what was a league record 13-game postseason losing streak. But Miami did very little to suggest that they are not the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
Third seeded Indiana needed just five to get past Orlando, which won the opening game of the series. The Pacers then won the next four games to oust the Magic with three coming by at least 15 points.
Boston needed six to get by Atlanta and this could be considered a minor upset. Boston was seeded fourth by virtue of having won the Atlantic Division but the fifth seeded Hawks actually had the better record and home court advantage.
Heat vs Pacers
Miami struggled to get past Indiana in the opening game of their series, winning 95-86 in a game that was tied after three quarters. The Heat also lost Chris Bosh to an abdominal injury that is expected to sideline him for at least Tuesday’s Game two.
The Pacers dropped three of four regular season meetings with Miami but played better in each succeeding game, winning their final encounter by 15 points a month prior to the playoffs.
Indiana is not intimidated by the Heat and has a nicely balanced roster. Of course they do not have anyone the caliber of LeBron James or Dwyane Wade but there is depth. Indiana is good enough to extend this series to six. After failing to cover in Game one by a single point as eight point underdogs, the Pacers are worth a look at +7½ in Game two.
Look for Indiana to at least split the two games at home and, if trailing 3-1 heading back to Miami for Game five, would be playable as underdogs in the range of seven to eight points.
Celtics vs Sixers
Boston was outplayed by Philadelphia for most of Game one, but the Celtics managed a comeback and briefly flirted with covering the 5½ point impost before holding on for a 92-91 win. The teams met just three times in the regular season (twice in Philadelphia) with the home team favored, winning and covering in each game.
Philly’s cover in Game one was their third against Boston this season and the first time in which the points came into play. Note that all three regular season games were decided by 13 points or more.
Boston has a significant edge in playoff experience. The usual concerns about age are mitigated somewhat by the staggering of the playoff schedule with no instances of back to back games. The Celtics have NBA Championship experience with the core of their title team intact and still capable of deciding games.
Both teams have excellent coaches with Philly’s Doug Collins every bit as savvy as Boston’s Doc Rivers. Boston is still talented enough to win this series but of the four series this would seem to be the most likely to go the full seven with Boston ultimately prevailing.
Game two was played Monday night and should Boston hold a 2-0 lead, the 76ers would be the preferred play in Game three as short four to six point favorites. If the series is tied 1-1, Boston would be the play, likely as underdogs of four points or less. The best strategy would be to play the trailing team until the series is tied. Then, Boston would be the play to retake the series lead.
Spurs vs Clippers
San Antonio will have had more than a week of rest when opening its series against the Clippers on Tuesday. The Spurs swept Utah out of the playoffs and won Game four back on May 7. After winning the first three games by at least a dozen points, the Spurs’ clinching win came in Utah by six.
San Antonio is as hot right now as any team in playoff history. The Spurs won 11 in a row from late March through early April before dropping two straight to Utah and the Lakers. But they’ve not lost since and begin this series as winners of 14 straight games and 25 of their last 27.
Not surprisingly the top seeded Spurs – who would enjoy home court advantage in the NBA Finals now that Chicago has been bounced – are better than 20-1 favorites to get past the Clippers, against whom they are 11 point chalk in Game one.
The Spurs have shown a killer instinct and have been excellent at closing out games. In their current 14 game winning streak all but three have been won by double digits. The Clippers have made great strides and should be even better next season.
They have an opening round playoff series victory to build upon. But this series should go no more than five. The Spurs might come out rusty in Game one after the extended period of inactivity but figure to be strong in the second half. They should win the first two at home, do no worse than split the two in Los Angeles and wrap up the series back home in Game five.
Interestingly the Spurs had played seven straight OVERS before a push in the final game of the regular season. Yet all four games of their sweep against Utah stayed UNDER. All three regular season games between the Spurs and Clippers went OVER with San Antonio winning twice. One of those games did need overtime, falling short by just two points at the end of regulation.
It’s hard to recommend playing against the Spurs considering their current form. In winning 14 straight games the Spurs are an amazing 12-1-1 ATS including 3-1 in sweeping Utah. During this stretch they are a perfect 4-0 ATS as double digit favorites.
The best strategy for betting this series might be to utilize the “pray and play” approach. Pray for the Clippers to be up at the half at which point you would play the Spurs in the second half. Should the Spurs be up 2-0 heading to Los Angeles for Game 3 the play would be on the Clippers but only if they are underdogs. If the series is tied or the Spurs down 2-0, San Antonio would be the play in Games three and four.
OKC at LA Lakers
Second seeded Oklahoma City took two of three meetings against the Lakers during the regular season with the wins staying UNDER the total and the Lakers’ victory going OVER. But the Lakers’ win did require a pair of overtime sessions a few days before the end of the season or it would have been the lowest scoring of the three meetings.
The Thunder were not nearly as impressive as San Antonio in completing a four game sweep of Dallas. Three of Oklahoma City’s four wins were by just one, three and six points. The Lakers needed the full seven to get by Denver, but did play the first six games without the suspended Metta World Peace (aka Ron Artest).
Peace returned for Game seven and, barring some more bad behavior, or injury, will be available for the duration of the playoffs. Some cynics might make bad behavior the favorite over injury as the reason why World Peace would miss additional games.
Oklahoma City has the better overall talent and a deeper roster, but will be facing a Lakers team with plenty of playoff experience. Kobe Bryant finished second in the scoring race to OKC’s Kevin Durant who has become an elite player. Oklahoma City is the younger team, better capable of forcing an up-tempo pace to see if the aging Lakers can keep up.
The Thunder were favored by seven or 7½ points in Monday’s Game 1. Because of their experience the Lakers stand a reasonable chance in this series but Oklahoma City should win in at most 6.
But the Lakers should win the ATS battle and would be playable in Wednesday’s Game 2 regardless of the Game 1 result. An upset win Monday would have Oklahoma City even more heavily favored in Game 2.
An opening game loss might cause the Lakers to be around six point favorites in Game 2. The Lakers would be playable in Game 3 at home, perhaps around pick’em. Unless a sweep is in progress the team trailing 2-1 would be the play in Game 4.