Two rounds of the NBA playoffs are in the books and the conference finals should be a lot of fun, with the 2-seed Boston Celtics taking on the 8-seed Miami Heat in the East and the 1-seed Denver Nuggets facing the 7-seed Los Angeles Lakers in the West.
Here’s a look at the updated odds and some of the bets that are worthy of your attention.
Eastern Conference finals
Boston Celtics vs. Miami Heat
Best bets: Celtics -2.5 games (+125); Celtics -1.5 games (-190)
With all due respect to Jimmy Butler and the Heat, the Celtics should win this series convincingly. They are the better team overall, the top team in the league, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, and the BPI series projector has the Celtics winning the series 97% of the time. But beyond the analytics, the Celtics just match up well stylistically with the Heat. The Heat have won their first two series by dirtying up the game and relying on the brilliance of Butler and timely 3-point shooting to overwhelm the limping Bucks and the Knicks. Neither of those teams had the team shooting to get the game out of the dirt and just outscore the Heat. The Celtics do.
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Jayson Tatum is an alpha scorer for the Celtics that the Heat will have to key on all the way out beyond the 3-point line. This will open things up for All NBA 2nd team wing Jaylen Butler to either get open looks or work against an imbalanced defense. And the Celtics have Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon and Derrick White all capable of knocking down the 3-point shot in volume if left open. The Heat have yet to face a team with that kind of firepower in the postseason.
In addition, because the Heat start two bigs in Bam Adebayo and Kevin Love, it opens up the probability of the Celtics continuing the adjustment coach Joe Mazzulla made last series and starting both Al Horford and Robert Williams. The two big lineup of the Celtics has proven to be one of the best defensive units in the league over the last two seasons, and will make it very difficult for the Heat to score in the paint. It also allows the Celtics’ defenders to be more aggressive on the perimeter, thus affecting the Heat’s chances to score from deep.
And, quietly, it seems to me that Butler wasn’t quite the same “Himmy” after his ankle injury against the Knicks as he was before. He played through it, but seemed to lack the explosiveness in his moves that made him so unstoppable. Butler played more of a decoy/distributor role later in the Knicks series, and that was enough. But against the Celtics, for the Heat to have a chance, Playoffs Jimmy has to make appearances early and often. Hopefully the rest between series helped him, but I’m not sure Butler can physically perform the kind of heroics it would require for the Heat to be even competitive. I could see this series ending in five or six games, which makes the Celtics -2.5 and Celtics -1.5 handicaps solid value at either plus money or manageable minus money. I like the Celtics to cover.
Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum shoots over Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler. AP Photo/Charles Krupa
Western Conference finals
Denver Nuggets vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Best bets: Lakers to win (+145); Lakers +1.5 games (-165)
This series projects as a toss-up. The top-seeded Nuggets were by far the better team for the majority of the regular season, but once the Lakers made the trades to surround LeBron James and Anthony Davis with shooters and defenders and (more importantly) LeBron and Davis got healthy, they became one of the best teams in the NBA. According to ESPN’s BPI stat, the Lakers and Nuggets are virtually tied as the top two teams in the Western Conference. The BPI projection gives the Nuggets a 52% chance to win this series and the Lakers 48%, but that difference is based almost entirely on home court advantage and any advantage falls into the noise.
In a toss-up series, I find value in the underdog to win (more juice) or for the underdog with a handicap if you can still get even money. In this case, the Lakers have as good a chance to win as the Nuggets, but you can get more juice betting the Lakers. And if you think the Nuggets might win a competitive series, you give up some of that juice but get the Lakers +1.5 games. I support either of those.
Series Top Point Scorer: LeBron James +350 or Jamal Murray +600
According to Caesars Sportsbook, Nikola Jokic is the odds-on favorite (-140) to be the leading scorer in the Western Conference Finals. I don’t see it that way. I think that Jokic and Anthony Davis will do battle this series, and that neither are likely to lead their teams or the series in scoring. Instead, I see value in LeBron James (+350) and/or Jamal Murray (+600) as potential series scoring leaders.
First, let’s look at how these four scorers did in their regular season matchups with each other:
Jokic: 23.3 PPG, 62.3 FG% (four games)
James: 25.0 PPG, 48.4 FG% (three games)
Murray: 22.8 PPG, 44.4 FG% (four games)
Davis: 18.3 PPG, 58.1 FG% (three games)
Jokic and Murray were almost equal co-leading scorers in their four games against the Lakers this season. Meanwhile, LeBron was the leading scorer overall, with a clear volume advantage over Davis to lead the Lakers.
In the playoffs so far, Jokic and Murray have again taken turns leading the way in scoring. Against the Minnesota Timberwolves, who sported Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns and Naz Reid at the pivot, Murray led the Nuggets with 27.2 PPG (vs Jokic’s 26.2 PPG). Against the Phoenix Suns, Jokic completely overwhelmed Deandre Ayton and popped for 34.5 PPG (vs Murray’s 24.8 PPG). Against the Lakers’ excellent defense, led by Davis, this matches up as a series where Murray could again lead the Nuggets in scoring.
For the Lakers, while Davis has gotten a lot of press for his up-and-down games, including multiple dominant efforts at both ends of the court, LeBron has consistently led the team in scoring. In the first round against Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson Jr. and the Memphis Grizzlies, LeBron averaged 22.2 PPG vs Davis’ 20.8. The next round, against the Golden State Warriors, LeBron went for 24.7 PPG while Davis went for 21.5 PPG.
On the whole, with Davis and Jokic going at it at both ends and potentially getting themselves into foul trouble, I see Murray and LeBron leading their respective teams in scoring. You can get either/both of them at solidly plus money to lead the series in scoring, and I see value in either.
All odds courtesy Caesars Sportsbook.