The defending East champion Miami Heat enter as the No. 6 seed as this first post-bubble postseason tips off. They’ll have a chip on their shoulder because many out there believe that what happened in the playoffs last August and September was a product of the unique enclosed environment at Disney’s Wide World of Sports. With a return to normalcy with this 2021 NBA Finals, expectations are high.
The fact they finished sixth is also an indication of how much deeper the Eastern Conference appears to be in 2020-21. The No. 7 seed is a Boston Celtics team that Miami upset to reach the NBA Finals. Philadelphia, improved under Doc Rivers, is the top seed. Brooklyn, fortified by the elite trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving, is the favorite to survive in the East, paying out just +110 at BetRivers and DraftKings and +105 at FanDuel. BetMGM has them at -110. Every book lists them as the favorite to win the championship.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks are flying under the radar despite the high-profile addition of point guard Jrue Holiday. They’ll look to get revenge against a Heat team that eliminated them in the East semifinals last season in one of the top first-round series we’ll see over the next few weeks.
After a lengthy absence of seven years, the Knicks are back in the playoffs and host a Hawks team that ended a three-year drought in the East’s 4-5 series. One of these resurgent teams will reach a conference finals in surprise fashion and will be a heavy underdog against Philadelphia presuming the top seed advances. Here’s a closer look at how the East’s first round shakes out.
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76ers Seek Strong Start Against Overmatched No. 8 Seed
The hobbled Wizards or a Pacers team that struggles to defend effectively and wouldn’t have one of their top playmakers in Caris LaVert, so expect series prices to make either a major underdog against Philadelphia.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons haven’t had a great history of playoff success together, having never reached a conference finals. Last season, they were swept out of the first round by the Celtics, leading to the firing up head coach Bruce Brown and hiring of Rivers. This season, they finished with 49 wins, finishing a game up on Brooklyn and won the Atlantic Division. Despite adding only Dwight Howard, Seth Curry, and rookie Tyrese Maxey to last season’s nucleus, the Sixers have taken a step forward.
As far as this series is concerned, Philly swept Washington in three games this season and went 2-1 against Indiana. The lone loss suffered recently on May 11, came in Indianapolis with Embiid sitting the game out. Although they’ll have to deal with a talented tandem in either Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal or Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, it’s hard to imagine either underdog winning more than two games in a series. More than likely, expect a 4-1 finish since the 76ers do have a tendency to let their guard down. Give that a look at an exact series price play as opposed to taking a shot at an upset since the odds on riding Philadelphia will be too high to gamble on.
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Nets Look to Establish Chemistry vs.Short-handed Celtics
The Celtics survived Washington to finish with the No. 7 seed and their reward will be the most potent team in the conference. After Jayson Tatum dropped a 50-point night and Kemba Walker responded with a 29-point effort as a co-star in the win over the Wizards, there’s confidence that Boston has enough to at least give Brooklyn a good run, but it will need help from the Nets in order to do it.
A supporting cast of Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, Evan Fournier, and Tristan Thompson, the first two of which were banged up in Tuesday’s victory, will have to deal with perhaps the deepest team in the East. Jaylen Brown is done for the season.
Durant, Harden, and Irving played only two games together prior to these playoffs starting after the “Beard” returned on May 12 after sitting 18 games due to a hamstring injury. They’ve played eight contests together for Brooklyn this season. If there are some chemistry issues, it’s possible that Tatum and Walker can steal a few games in the series. Certainly, there are fun subplots ahead.
Irving will finally return to Boston to play for the first time in Game 3, something he hasn’t done since his tumultuous two-year tenure ended in 2019. Due to the pandemic or injuries, Celtics fans haven’t gotten to boo him. It’s expected that Massachusetts will lift COVID-19 regulations on May 29, which means Game 4 of this series would be played at full capacity. That would be some fun. There will be at least close to 5,000 fans in attendance for Game 3 unless changes are made between now and then since that’s what the current allotment is, while Brooklyn’s Barclays Center is expected to be at least 33 percent full for Game 1 and potentially at 50 percent capacity for the second contest.
The Nets won all three matchups against Boston during the regular season. BetMGM has Brooklyn as a -1100 favorite to win the series and lists Boston a +700 underdog. The most expected series result is Nets in 5, while a sweep (+275) is considered more likely than a 4-2 finish (+350). The spread for Game 1 opened at Brooklyn -7.5.
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Bucks Out for Revenge but Confident Heat won’t Blink
The Heat should be back at full strength with the exception of Victor Oladipo, whose rental sadly didn’t work out due to injury. Meanwhile, Milwaukee rebuilt itself by adding Holiday, Bobby Portis, Jeff Teague, and Bryn Forbes to the rotation, leading Khris Middleton to say this is a “different team” and last season’s 4-1 flameout in the bubble plays no role.
Miami has multiple players it can throw at Antetokounmpo in Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, and Trevor Ariza, who its hoping will do as well as Jae Crowder did. The Heat will look to wall off the paint, make life difficult for him and see if they can draw offensive charges. They’ll need Tyler Herro to rediscover his consistency from beyond the arc and shooters Duncan Robinson, Goran Dragic, and Kendrick Nunn to let it fly in keeping up with the pace.
Expect to see high totals in this series, with Saturday’s Game 1 at Fiserv Forum hung at 226.5 at FanDuel. The Bucks are a 5-point favorite in the series opener across the board and are set to increase capacity to its highest point to date (50 percent, 9,000). They won the season series 2-1 but Antetokounmpo only averaged 16.7 points despite shooting nearly 49 percent from the field. Holiday averaged 19 points and 7.3 assists and joined Middleton as catalysts in last Saturday’s win which felt hollow since Butler didn’t play.
Expect a feisty series that Holiday should help swing Milwaukee’s way since he’s a fantastic 2-way player. That said, it won’t be easy to extinguish the Heat. Backing the Bucks in six (+325) or seven games (+400), which are the prices at BetMGM, could be the best investment. The Bucks are a -275 ‘chalk’ to advance, while Miami is +225 to pull off the upset.
Homecourt Could Help Decide Knicks-Hawks
It’s exciting to hear 13,000 fans will pack Madison Square Garden for Sunday’s return to the playoffs. Knicks fans haven’t had much to cheer about for most of the past two decades and have largely played the Charlie Brown role in having hopes dashed time after time. Finishing fourth will allow New York to set the tone in a series that oddsmakers have dubbed a pick’em. DraftKings has Atlanta as a light -117 favorite to New York’s -109, yet have installed New York as a -1.5-point favorite for Game 1.
This is going to be a tricky matchup to handicap. Tom Thibodeau plays his regulars the most minutes in the league, so there’s a concern that Julius Randle, R.J. Barrett, and Derrick Rose might wear down throughout the course of a long series. Then again, Randle destroyed the Hawks this season, averaging 37.3 points and 12.3 rebounds while shooting 58 percent in leading the Knicks to a 3-0 regular-season sweep. He poured in 40 while Rose and promising rookie Immanuel Quickley each scored 20 points in a 137-127 win when they last got together on April 21.
Trae Young, the Hawks’ dynamic point guard, had his team in a position to win that game before suffering an ankle sprain that cost him a couple of weeks of action. He had 20 points and 14 assists prior to the injury, so you know he’s looking forward to an extended rematch. His ability to push for lobs and easier opportunities for teammates makes this a contrast in styles since the Knicks are going to look to slow the game down and play through Randle or Rose in halfcourt sets. While the first meeting on Jan. 4 went ‘under’ the posted total, the last two matchups have sailed to the high side. BetRivers has the Game 1 total posted at 215.5.
Both teams have a significant number of playoff newbies, which includes the leaders of both sides, Randle and Young. The Hawks’ point guard shot poorly against the Knicks defense but managed to average 24.7 points and 12.0 assists. Rose and Lou Williams are the playoff vets for their respective sides, so bench play will also play huge role. Atlanta has better shooters. New York has the grimier squad. Homecourt advantage may ultimately loom large here, so a series future of Knicks in 7 that pays out +450 at BetMGM may be the most fun way to play what should be a rollercoaster of a series.