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The first round of the NBA playoffs has seen favorites flex their muscles so resoundingly that only a single Game 6 was guaranteed following the second weekend of action.

Only the West’s seventh-seed, San Antonio, managed to guarantee a Game 6. Every other lower seed found themselves on the brink of elimination entering April’s final full week and the fifth installment of their respective series.

The Eastern Conference saw the sixth-seeded Nets and seventh-seeded Magic bark early with Game 1 wins, but both underdogs ended up down 3-1 and facing elimination as heavy road underdogs after being swept at home. The Bucks and Celtics broke out the brooms, so the top-four battle royale that has appeared inevitable for months is set to go off as expected.

The West’s top story remains DeMarcus Cousins’ quad injury that took him out of the postseason mix and the Warriors’ subsequent Game 2 loss in Oakland. But the two-time defending champs coasted to a pair of victories in L.A. against the Clippers and should advance to the next round and what might end up being the toughest obstacle they must overcome in order to secure a three-peat.

Although they fell in Utah on Monday night, the Rockets taking a 3-0 lead over a Jazz team that won 50 games and owned the second-best record since the All-Star break behind theirs stood out to me as the most impressive feat accomplished so far this postseason.

Guards James Harden and Chris Paul have been dominant, center Clint Capela was effective against reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and the team’s role players have all executed brilliantly. Utah avoided a sweep with a 107-91 Monday night rout, but isn’t going to prevent the Rockets from being exactly where they envisioned being in May of 2019 when this season began. Houston is going to get another crack at the Warriors.

You won’t find anyone associated with last year’s Rockets who isn’t haunted by the fact they let Golden State off the hook in blowing a 3-2 series lead in the ’18 Western Conference finals. The what-if game is strong within their group for good reason, since Chris Paul’s hamstring injury kept him out of Games 6 and 7, allowing the Warriors to more easily impose their will. Harden struggled to hit shots and lift his team in a season where he’d eventually be named MVP, so that award is forever tarnished for him.

All that angst and regret could wind up a formidable driving force for Houston, which bolstered its belief that it can take down the Warriors by winning three of the four regular-season meetings, losing only the most recent one in March by a single bucket. Even with Harden shooting just 36 percent from the field against the Jazz, he’s been able to distribute and command so much attention that it’s made life awfully easy for teammates to get going against one of the league’s top defensive teams.

The Rockets beat Utah by a combined margin of 52 points in the Houston portion of their series to go up 2-0, seemingly sending a message to Golden State in doing so. Harden shot 11-for-39 from the field in Salt Lake City in Games 3 and 4 to fuel speculation that all the wear and tear from a regular season in which he played 78 of 82 games while maintaining an astronomical usage rate is starting to catch up to him.

The fact this long-awaited series is coming a round earlier than it would’ve had the Rockets not finished as the No. 4 seed helps to dispel that narrative some, especially since the team is arriving healthier than it has been all season as the rematch approaches.

The Westgate SuperBook sent out early series price numbers that have Golden State as a favorite of -360, which is entirely too high a figure to lay given what the Rockets can do. Houston is +280 to open the series, and I’d recommend taking a shot with them simply for the solid return rate and doing so again at an even more lucrative number if it drops Game 1.

Considering the Rockets are +300 to win the West and +600 to win it all, backing them to simply get out of this series is a must since it pays out almost as impressively as reaching the Finals.

The early series prices for the East’s likely semifinal matchups have the Bucks (-250) favored over the Celtics (+200) and the Raptors (-220) as the chalk in their series with the 76ers (+180). In the first season where LeBron James isn’t dominating the conference, there are four worthy challengers to Golden State’s throne, but I’m of the belief that the Rockets remain the most viable threat to unseat them at champs. The familiarity and contempt Houston brings to the table makes it a formidable adversary in this upcoming West semifinal series, so if you’re up for backing an underdog to trip down the Warriors, now is the time to act.

For this week’s free picks, lay the points with the Spurs in Game 6 of their series against the Nuggets and look for a high-scoring affair in Game 1 of Bucks-Celtics. You’re going to want to ride the over there.

Last week: 2-0

Season: 29-28

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About the Author
Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia has been a national writer for nearly two decades and has covered NBA and college basketball as a columnist, analyst, handicapper, and bracketologist for CBS Sports, Pro Basketball News, and numerous other sites.

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