After what was an unprecedented finish to the NBA regular season in which virtually all opening round matchups were not determined until the final night of the season, the Playoffs got underway this past weekend with several surprising results that began to answer some questions while raising others.
As expected, the home team was favored in all eight games and form largely held true with six of the eight winning and only Houston failing to cover in its narrow 3 point win over Minnesota.
Golden State and Philadelphia won by double digits while Boston, Oklahoma City and Toronto won by single digits while covering their pointspreads. Of this trio Boston had the most difficult time, needing overtime to get by Milwaukee 113-107, covering their 4 point line by a bucket.
The underdog won two of the eight games with the shocker being the ease with which Indiana won at Cleveland in the matchup of the 4 and 5 seeds in the Eastern Conference. Leading by more than 20 points at one point, the Pacers fought off a brief Cleveland rally that cut the deficit to single digits before sprinting away in the final minutes to defeat the Cavs, 98-80. The Pacers won as 7.5 point underdogs.
The other upset occurred late Saturday night when New Orleans went into Portland in the 3 versus 6 Western Conference matchup. Leading for a good part of the contest the 5 point road underdog Pelicans upset the Trailblazers, 97-95.
The Atlantic Division provided the top three seeds in the East with Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia each winning more than 50 games. Fourth seeded Cleveland won 50 games and the other four Eastern Playoffs teams won between 43 and 48 games such that all eight teams from the weaker of the two conferences had winning records, a condition that has not always existed in recent seasons.
In the Western Conference Houston, with 65 wins, clearly earned the top seed with Golden State clearly second best with 58 regular season wins.
But the gap between third seeded Portland and eighth seeded Minnesota was just two games. The Blazers won 49 games with fourth seeded Oklahoma City and fifth seeded Utah winning 48 while the final three seeds – New Orleans, San Antonio and Minnesota – each won 47 games.
This tightness suggests, with the exception of the top seeds Houston and Golden State, it would not be surprising if one, or both, of the lower seeded teams in the other two series (Utah and New Orleans) pulled upsets over the third and fourth seeded Blazers and Thunder.
Here are thoughts on the eight opening round series as they stand heading into Monday’s initial slate of Game 2’s.
Minnesota’s game effort in Game 1 was somewhat of a surprise considering how these teams fared in the regular season. Houston won all four meetings with the first three wins by the identical margin of 18 points and their most recent meeting, in mid March, by 9 points. Given those easy wins perhaps the Rockets took the Timberwolves lightly in the series opener and we should learn more about Houston in Game 2 on Wednesday.
If Houston is to dethrone Golden State they need to display a killer instinct en route to a potential meeting with the Warriors in the conference Finals. That is often the case of a championship caliber team following a dull effort, even when that effort results in a win as it did for the Rockets in Game 1. Minnesota remains a talented, up and coming team with Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns as solid and dynamic a combo as there is in the league.
But the T-Wolves could be considered a bit of a disappointment based on their play over the second half of the season, which cannot be solely attributed to the absence of Butler due to injury down the stretch. Houston has its own demons to exorcize following recent Playoff failures. They should win this series in five games with Minnesota’s best chance for a win in Game 3 at home.
There is a slight nod to backing the Rockets in Game 2, and if they win to take a 2-0 lead to Minnesota the Wolves would be the play as a small home underdog in Game 3. Houston would be an attractive play in Game 4 if looking to take a 3-1 lead back home for a Game 5.
The top seeded Raptors are favored to win the East and finally got a win in the first game of a Playoff series although Washington was competitive for much of the contest, even taking a 4 point lead into halftime. The teams split their four regular season meetings, each winning once at home and once on the road.
Toronto was the more consistent team over the entirety of the season although Washington was more impacted by injuries than were the Raptors. Still, the combination of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozen has been more reliable than the Wizards’ combo of John Wall and Bradley Beal. With a better supporting cast and a deeper roster, look for Toronto to exorcize past demons and advance in likely six games.
If the Wizards even the series with a win on Tuesday, look to back the Raptors in Game 3. Should Toronto sweep their two home games the play in Game 3 would be on the Wizards to avoid falling into an 0-3 deficit.
These teams split their regular season meetings with each winning once at home and once on the road. Only one of their meetings occurred after Dec. 4, with the Bucks winning by 4 at home early in April. The Celtics overcame the season long absence of their prized off season free agent signee, Gordon Hayward, and now must endure the entirety of the Playoffs without Kyrie Irving, who was involved in a major offseason trade with Cleveland and who led the Celtics for much of the season in a tight battle with Toronto for the top seed.
Milwaukee made the Playoffs as the number 7 seed despite a mid season change in coaches and a rather ordinary supporting cast around “the Greek Freak,” Giannis Antetokounmpo. Boston’s Brad Stevens remains one of the NBA’s best coaches and he should show why, as he faces the challenge of managing what is now an even more short handed roster with Marcus Smart possibly sidelined for the entire first round. Milwaukee is good enough to perhaps garner one win in the series, most likely at home.
Over the next few games the best play in this series would be to back the loser of Tuesday’s Game 2 when the series shifts to Milwaukee for Game 3. Should Milwaukee be in a position to be eliminated in Game 4 they would again be playable to avoid the sweep but if Boston is in position to take a 3 games to 1 lead, or needs to win to even the series, the Celtics would be the Game 4 play.
Philadelphia had a remarkable regular season, ending a lengthy Playoffs drought by going 52-30 and earning the number 3 seed. Miami is a veteran team on the verge of needing to rebuild and their mid season acquisition of Dwyane Wade, providing leadership to complement the play of Goran Dragic, akin to what Wade provided in his earlier stint with the Heat when they were NBA Champions.
Thus entering the Playoffs the big question was whether the inexperience of the 76ers would be a factor that might allow Miami to pull the upset. Based on what we saw in Game 1 Miami is in for a tough series. Winners of 16 in a row to end the regular season, Philly dominated the Heat in an easy 130-103 Game 1 win. The win marked the fifth win in five games by the home team this season so the oft cited bromide that a Playoff series takes shape once the road team wins a game may well be applicable here.
Interestingly, all four regular season meetings took place since Feb. 2 and all were decided by single digits, making Game 1’s result the anomaly to date. Philly was favored by 6.5 to 7 points in Monday’s Game 2 and regardless of the result of that game the Heat would be the play in Game 3 on Thursday. Philly’s Ben Simmons has been brilliant all season after missing his rookie season and Joel Embiid, who might be cleared to play Game 3, has provided the Sixers with a solid duo that should be productive over the next few seasons.
Miami coach Eric Spoelstra remains one of the NBA’s more underrated coaches and the Heat should be more competitive over the remainder of the series. But Philadelphia has the better roster and should win this series in six games, although it would not be a surprise if the Heat can force a game 7.
This is the most intriguing of all the opening round series and has become more so after the Pacers routed the Cavaliers in Game 1. The key game in this series will be Wednesday’s Game 2. After closing as 7.5 point favorites in the opener, the line is a point higher for Game 2 given the need of the Cavs to avoid falling down 0-2 heading to Indiana. The Pacers won the first 3 of 4 games against Cleveland in the regular season but all four games were played prior to the end of January and when the Cavs retooled their roster with several pre trade deadline moves.
The Cavs should win Game 2 but it might not be in what many would expect to be a rout. When the series shifts to Indiana getting points with the Cavs would be worth considering and it is reasonable to expect the series to be tied at two games apiece when the teams return to Cleveland for a Game 5. The Pacers were a nice surprise this season after reshaping the roster after last season. This could be a series in which the team that loses (Indiana) fares better at the betting windows than the team that advances.
The defending Champion Warriors absorbed an above average number of injuries in the regular season, including star Stephen Curry, yet still managed 58 wins and earned the number 2 seed by a comfortable margin. Golden State remains the favorite to win the Western title although by a very slim margin over top seeded Houston. San Antonio was without Kawhi Leonard for all but nine games this season and it is all but certain he will not appear in the Playoffs.
Often when a favorite wins easily to open a series the line drops slightly in Game 2 in recognition of the greater sense of urgency faced by the road team to avoid an 0-2 start. But that’s not the case here as the Warriors were favored by 9.5 as of mid-morning Monday for their game about eight hours later. The linesmakers and the public are recognizing the difficulty the Spurs are expected to have in making this a competitive series. Should the Warriors take a 2-0 lead into San Antonio the Spurs might warrant consideration in Game 3 if getting at least 4 points.
Should the Warriors be in position for a sweep then it might be worth backing them to complete the sweep in Game 4 despite the long standing pedigree of the Spurs and the outstanding coaching career of Greg Popovich. The talent, depth and stamina just are not there and the absence of Leonard is magnified. LaMarcus Aldridge is a solid player but he cannot carry the Spurs as the team is currently configured. At most, Golden State should need no more than five games to advance.
New Orleans’ win in Game 1 was one of two opening game upsets and in some respects it should not have been a shock. The Pelicans were 24-17 SU on the road in the regular season including a 7 point win in Portland in early December. The teams split their four regular season meetings, each winning once at home and on the road.
Portland is led by Damian Lillard and New Orleans by Anthony Davis, a pair of star players that don’t often get the attention heaped upon LeBron James or Steph Curry but both are vital to their teams’ success. The teams were separated by just one win during the regular season, suggestive of a series that handicaps going the full seven games. It also suggests a series that might fit nicely into the long standing zig-zag theory of Playoff handicapping that has us play on the loser of one game in their next game.
Portland would qualify as the play in Tuesday’s Game 2. Portland, which closed as a 5 point favorite in Game 1, is favored by 6.5 in Game 2, an upward adjustment reflecting the greater sense of urgency faced by the homestanding Blazers. If New Orleans is to win this series it would most likely be in six games. If the series goes the distance the Blazers would be the choice. Follow both this series and the one previewed next as the ones most likely to go the distance and to feature teams alternating wins.
The fourth seeded Thunder and fifth seeded Jazz each won 48 games in the regular season. Utah won the three most recent meetings after OKC won their first contest in the opening week of the season. Of note is all fjour games stayed UNDER the Total with each falling within the relatively narrow range of 183 to 194 total points. It made the result of Oklahoma City’s 116-108 Game 1 win somewhat surprising, eclipsing the Total of 205 by 19 points.
Even that Total of 205 was surprising as their four regular season games featured Totals in a range of 197 to 200. The explanation may be their four regular season meetings all occurred prior to Christmas and much has changed over the intervening four months. OKC was still a work in progress when the teams met earlier, assimilating new talent onto the roster and into the rotations, most notably the additions of Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. Utah also underwent a roster makeover following the end of last season.
Should OKC win Game 2 on Wednesday, in which they are favored by 3.5 points, Utah would be playable in both Games 3 and 4 back home. Should Utah pull the upset in Game 2 then consider employing the zig zag theory in Games 3 and 4 with the likelihood of the series returning to Oklahoma City tied 2-2 heading into Game 5.
In next week’s column the series will be reevaluated based upon how they stand after next Sunday.