The best part of the NBA season is underway with the start of the Playoffs this past weekend, and there certainly were some surprises on both Saturday and Sunday.
It’s been discussed before that the NBA Playoffs historically have seen things go to form with the best teams in the regular season going deeper in the Playoffs and often winning the title more often than in other sports.
This makes sense because of the physical nature of basketball, which is an extremely demanding game of running up and down the court and is played by just five players per team at a time. Individual talent has more of an impact in a game played by just five players per side.
In the opening games of the eight series, three produced upsets as Milwaukee beat Toronto, Utah surprised the LA Clippers and Chicago knocked off the Celtics in Boston.
Boston’s 4 point loss to Chicago was close throughout with Chicago playing better for most of the fourth quarter. The tragic death of Boston’s Isaiah Thomas’s sister late Saturday cast a somber tone surrounding Sunday’s game but somehow Thomas had a strong first game in the 106-102 loss. Thomas’ availability for Tuesday’s Game 2 is questionable as we go to press and it certainly would be understandable if he misses the game to be with his family.
Perhaps the greatest concern coming out of the first set of games relates to Cleveland Cavaliers. Seemingly in control through the first three quarters and leading by 8 entering the fourth, the Cavs had to survive a last second miss by Indiana’s CJ Miles to hang on for a 109-108 win heading to Monday’s Game 2.
Golden State used a strong fourth quarter on Sunday to get past pesky Portland a day after San Antonio rode a strong second half to easily dispatch Memphis in the first game of that series.
Washington had a strong third quarter that propelled the Wizards past Atlanta in their opener on Sunday.
The weekend was capped Sunday night with a dominant second half effort from Houston. The Rockets led by just 5 (59-54) at halftime then blew past Oklahoma City and Russell Westbrook in the second half, holding the Thunder to just 33 points after intermission in a 31 point win.
Game 1’s are often the most difficult to handicap and bet in a Playoff series, especially the opening series and this is even truer given the current culture. With teams more and more resting players down the stretch of the regular season there is no longer the same flow from the end of the regular season into the Playoffs.
Momentum, continuity or rhythm – however one wishes to frame teams’ approaches to preparing for the Playoffs, is as varied as ever. Sometimes the approaches seem to work. Others often do not.
Cleveland is still the team to beat in the East but there are causes to be concerned, especially given their inability in the fourth quarter of their opening game to put the Pacers away. Indiana is tough and physical and showed they are not intimidated by the Cavs.
The result of Monday’s Game 2 should give us guidance for Games 3 and 4. If Cleveland takes a 2-0 lead into Thursday’s Game 3 the Pacers, even as small underdogs, would be a solid play as the seed to avoid an 0-3 deficit. And they might even be modest underdogs if the Cavs won Game 2 handily. Should the Pacers have won Monday night they would be playable in Game 3 but only as home underdogs seeking to take a 2-1 lead.
Cleveland would be the play in Game 4 if looking to complete a 4-0 sweep or if they are down two games to one. Their best effort should come back at home if there is a Game 5.
Top seeded Boston and third seeded Toronto both dropped the opening game of their series at home. Toronto’s loss was a bit more unsettling as they were outplayed by Milwaukee in three of the four quarters, losing the first quarter by 8 points, the third quarter by 10 and the fourth quarter by 9.
There is a line and Total as of Monday morning that has Boston as a 6 point favorite and the Total at 204.5. If Thomas does play the Celtics would be the bet, but if Thomas does not play the bet would be on the UNDER. Boston is still the pick to advance to the next round and would be the play in both Games 3 and 4 in Chicago, provided the Celtics are underdogs or not favored by more than 2 points. Brad Stevens is a sharp coach and should make the necessary adjustments to contain Chicago’s best player, Jimmy Butler, to the greatest extent possible
The Raptors did outscore the Bucks by 13 points in the second quarter to actually lead by 5 points at halftime before being greatly outplayed by Milwaukee in the second half. Game 2 is on Tuesday and the Raptors are favored by 7.5 with the Total set at 193 following Milwaukee’s 97-83 Game 1 win. The Total in Game 1 opened 201.5 and, as it turned out, was correctly bet down to close at 197.5. That adjustment may be too much of an overreaction.
Toronto has not been in a game with a Total lower than 195 all season and only 10 of their 83 games has had a closing Total of Under 200. Milwaukee has had just 11 games with closing Totals lines of Under 200. Both teams played well over the final six weeks of the season and this series shows signs of going at least six games. If Toronto wins Game 2 to make this a best of five series going forward, look for the teams to split in Milwaukee with the better play coming in Game 4, playing on the loser of Game 3.
Should Milwaukee head home off of a two-game sweep in Toronto, the Raptors would be the play in Game 3 and again in Game 4, unless the Bucks are going for an improbable four game sweep.
The Washington vs. Atlanta series still forecasts as a win for the Wizards, but not without a struggle. Atlanta is well coached but dysfunctional at times. The Hawks played well in most of their opening game loss with the game turning on Washington’s strong third quarter. Washington is thought by many to have the best team to knock off Cleveland in what would now be the Conference Finals.
If they win Game 2 on Wednesday they would be in position to win the series in no more than five games, assuming they are able to achieve at least a split in Atlanta. But if the Hawks pull the upset in Game 2 – or sweep both home games in Games 3 and 4 – this series has an excellent chance of going the full seven games. It could see the home team win and cover the majority of the time unless the Hawks are in danger of being swept in four games, in which case the Wizards would be the play in Game 4 to complete the sweep.
Golden State should have little trouble getting past Portland and this series handicaps as going no more than five games. Portland is good enough to get at least one win, most likely in Game 3 back home if trailing 0-2, and would still be playable when getting double digits throughout the series, except in a potential Golden State clinching game back home in Game 5 or if the Warriors are in the unlikely position of being behind in the series. At Totals of 222 or lower the OVER should remain the Totals play as both teams are most comfortable in running the court.
San Antonio was impressive in its opening win over Memphis but the Spurs should get a test from the Grizzlies when they play Games 3 and 4 in Memphis. Memphis’ best chance for wins would be at home in Game 3 if they dropped Monday’s Game 2 in San Antonio and a money-line play in Game 3 will be tempting.
These teams met four times this season with each meeting taking place after Feb. 7. Memphis won both regular season games in Memphis, their first two meetings, by 15 and 8 points. The Spurs won both home meetings by 7 points, and then by 6 in overtime in their most recent two meetings. Still, expect San Antonio to get past Memphis in no more than six games with five games quite likely if the they leave Memphis up three games to one.
Houston should get past Oklahoma City in five or six games. The Rockets had that impressive second half in the opener yet the initial line for Game 2 on Wednesday is the same as the line for Game 1 – Houston by 7.5. The fact the line was not adjusted following that 31 point blowout may indicate OKC should be the play in Game 2.
The oddsmakers are generally sharp and should anticipate the money is more likely to pour in on the Rockets than on the Thunder. If Houston does indeed win Game 2 the play in Game 3 would be OKC and a play on the money-line should be considered, but only if OKC is a small home underdog. Houston is the better team with Russell Westbrook, but OKC is good enough to win at least once, if not twice, in this series.
Utah won the opener against the LA Clippers on a last second layup by veteran Joe Johnson with the game tied at 95. It was a surprising win by the Jazz who lost big man Rudy Gobert on the first play of the game. Gobert is listed as doubtful for Tuesday’s Game 2, which can be considered a figurative “must win” game for the Clippers lest they fall behind 0-2 headed to Utah.
The Clippers closed as 6 point favorites in Game 1 and the combination of the loss and the likely absence of Gobert has resulted in the Clippers favored by 8 in Game 2. Perhaps when Gobert was injured the Clippers subconsciously relaxed and took a win for granted. They played extremely well down the stretch of the regular season, winning seven in a row at the end, the last five of which were by double digits, including back-to-back wins of 11 points at San Antonio and by 29 at home over Houston.
The Game 2 play would be on the Clippers and they would also be playable in both Games 3 and 4 at Utah, if getting at least 2 points in either game. The Clippers are still the pick to win the series, most likely on their home court in Game 7.