No more bang with Bucks

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With the Milwaukee Bucks having moved to a season-best 4-9 (-225) to win the Eastern Conference this past week according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, it’s time to seriously explore options that carry significantly more value if you haven’t gotten in on favored Milwaukee by now.

On the doorstep of March, MVP lock Giannis Antetokounmpo has his team poised for a run at 70 wins, so if you didn’t get in when I wrote that you should back prior to mid-December, it’s no longer worth it to hop on the bandwagon.

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With the All-Star break in the rear-view mirror, it’s becoming clearer who your top options should be if you’re willing to play the dangerous game of fading the Bucks for big bucks.

Joel Embiid is finally healthy and playing his best ball of the season, but Ben Simmons’ back trouble puts any thoughts of riding the 76ers on pause. Philadelphia may not be able to get through the first round without him, so even though oddsmakers have come off their stance that the Sixers were the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, it’s too risky to ride them as a 10-1 value play.

Miami is coming back down to earth and needs to fix its defensive issues defending the 3-pointer, but I’d prefer it at 10-1 over backing Philly. Jimmy Butler has been practicing a little “load maintenance” to ensure he’s fresh for the stretch run and is among the East’s top two-way players. First-time All-Star Bam Adebayo is also a force at both ends, while new additions Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder will get fully acclimated next month and play large roles off the bench.

The Heat’s shaky form make them a strong option since there likely won’t be a better time than the present to hop on board, but both the Raptors and Celtics have done more in 2020 to earn your faith in them.

Toronto entered Tuesday’s showdown with Milwaukee on a 17-1 run despite wrestling with injuries. Starting center Marc Gasol and key wing Norman Powell have been out for weeks and should return in early March, fortifying one of the conference’s deepest rosters.

After opening the season at 25-1 to win the East, the Raptors are now down to 13-2 (+650), which is still a nice payday on a team filled with guys who just won a title. Although Kawhi Leonard is now leading the Clippers into battle, head coach Nick Nurse has pushed all the right buttons in replacing his production and had the Raps third in scoring margin (+7.2) behind the favored Bucks and Lakers as the week began.

Toronto defeated a pretty good Pacers squad that could potentially be its first-round opponent by 46 points on Sunday afternoon, setting a franchise record for margin of victory. The Raptors’ 15-game winning streak that ended just before the break was the longest sustained run of success in the city’s professional sports history. They definitely look like a special group that shouldn’t be written off and at 25-1 to repeat, may be worth a look on general principle.

Nipping at their heels in the Atlantic Division is Boston, which has also overcome an injury-plagued season to put itself in position for a No. 2 seed. Although Kemba Walker came out of All-Star with a touch of knee soreness, the Celtics should soon be completely healthy for the first time all season barring any setbacks.

Jayson Tatum scored a career-high 41 points in a tight loss at the Lakers on Sunday, continuing an amazing run that has seen him vault into the MVP conversation. He turns 22 years old on Tuesday and is averaging nearly 30 points per game in February, leading Boston by shooting 47 percent from 3-point range, making four or more in six of his first nine games in the month. The Celtics can play small-ball with the best of them and have a nice combination at center in Daniel Theis and 7-footer Enes Kanter to give Brad Stevens options.

Tatum outplayed L.A.’s Leonard and LeBron James in head-to-head matchups over the past few weeks and has clearly taken a step forward. As a result, Boston at 6-1 to win the East is also attractive. The Celtics are 20-1 to win their first championship since 2008.

Friday

Timberwolves at Magic: The Timberwolves have been forced to go small after trading Gorgui Dieng to Memphis at the trade deadline, leaving them without a safety net now that Karl-Anthony Towns is sidelined indefinitely by a wrist injury.

Minnesota has allowed an average of 129 points over its last five entering the week and face a Magic team that leads the league in scoring defense. They’ve found their offensive rhythm of late and should help top a total that will be among the highest involving Orlando this season, likely topping 225. OVER

Saturday

Nets at Heat: Miami welcomes Brooklyn and will be looking to get on track following a sloppy start to its stretch run. The Heat own one of the NBA’s top home records and will cover against the Nets, winning by double-digits.

Brooklyn, which is trying to get to the postseason without star guard Kyrie Irving, had a crushing defeat Monday night at home, blowing a 19-point lead to Orlando and falling to the Magic. HEAT

Sunday

76ers at Clippers: A big showdown sees the 76ers visiting the Clips at Staples. Look for L.A. to send a message and lay the points with Paul George back in the mix and Doc Rivers putting his foot on the gas to see what his team can do now that it is finally at full strength. CLIPPERS

Last week: 2-1

Season: 27-20-1

About the Author

Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia has been a national sportswriter 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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