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The play-in tournament gave us some great drama and was a nice warmup for the actual NBA Playoffs, but let's not get it twisted - the most entertaining and exciting time of the season is here. There are many great matchups in the first round and compelling story lines to boot. With our NBA futures betting strategy article we're going to focus this week on a breakdown of the basics details you need to know for the opening round and how each of these teams matched up with their opponents during the regular season.
Heat (+240) vs Bucks (-310)
Although this is a franchise-defining series for the Milwaukee Bucks, I believe this is a bad matchup for them to start the playoffs. We all know Miami bounced the Bucks out of the playoffs last year, but what many haven't talked about is the fact that Giannis Antetokounmpo has not improved this year against this same Heat team. Giannis averaged 28 PPG for the season, but vs. MIA he’s nearly 12 points worse (16 PPG) and his true shooting % has dropped almost 10% despite Butler not playing in any of the matchups.
The Heat aren’t the same defensive team from a season ago, as they’re just average at defending the 3PT line and are below average at defending the 2, so guys like Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton will also have to show up big in this series to help Milwaukee exact revenge. But at the end of the day it’s hard to see the Bucks winning this series if their best player can’t play any better than what he’s done against this team during the course of the regular season. The real x-factor here will be Jrue Holiday's impact throughout.
X-Factor: Holiday in 3 games vs. MIA: 19 PPG, 7 APG, 58% TS% (1.3 ppg better than the regular season)
Celtics (+790) vs Nets (-1500)
Out of the 16 teams that made the NBA Playoffs, the Boston Celtics are 1 of the 2 teams that are under .500 in their last 10 games. The other team was the Los Angeles Clippers, but they sat key players purposely to get the seeding they wanted. The Celtics, on the other hand, just aren’t as good as they’ve been in year's past where they made the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the past four years.
Jaylen Brown is done for the year as we all know, and Kemba Walker has been up and down all year at best. Kemba averaged 19 PPG for the season and only played against the Nets once, but he was terrible in that matchup in scoring only 11 points on 41% shooting. That won’t be enough to help out Jayson Tatum and the rest of the roster. The Nets will finally roll out their big three for the most important part of the NBA season, and I believe they will overwhelm the Celtics as they develop more chemistry with time.
I’m also looking for Kyrie Irving to have a big series against his former team here. During his time in Boston the Celtics were expected to reach the finals but never lived up to expectations. Irving received a lot of criticism for that, and now he’s in a better situation and I expect that his teammates will be hyping him up to go off against his former team. The Nets won all three games they played against Boston this season while Kyrie averaged 30 PPG (4 ppg better than his regular season average). I'm looking for this series to end in a sweep as we finally get to see BKN's big three play some meaningful (and dominant) basketball.
X-Factor: Fournier 13.7 PPG (9 FGA/game) 45% FG, 43% 3PT, 62% TS (3 percent better than regular season)
Clippers (-430) vs Mavs (+320)
This could be a tough matchup for the Clippers (again), and if both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George don’t improve their overall season play against the Dallas Mavericks, then they could get bounced out in the 1st round and eventually cause some major roster changes in Los Angeles. Luka Doncic is averaging an efficient 30 PPG this year against the Clippers (3 pppg better than his season average) and if Kristaps Porzingis can stay healthy (big "if" here), then that will help the Mavs' chances of pulling off the upset.
The Mavs played Clippers tough last year in the playoffs in the bubble before Porzingis was ruled out for the rest of the series. The big man's health, in addition to the moves the Mavs made to improve their defense in the offseason (i.e. Josh Richardson) will each need to show in order for them to have a shot.
X-Factor: The Clips we’re dying for a floor general like Rondo last year and they have him now - Rondo has the ability to bring the best out of his teammates, and he’ll need to do that here to get past the Mavs. The last team to give Rondo a bad rep was the Dallas Mavericks, so this could also be a revenge series for him.
Blazers (-115) vs Nuggets (-105)
The Blazers had dealt with some injuries to key players early in the year, but this seems to be their routine for the last couple years as they’re now getting healthy and playing their best basketball entering the playoffs after winning 8 of their final10 games. Damian Lillard did an amazing job carrying the offense while guys were in and out, and it has led to them having the 2nd most efficient offense this season.
Lillard didn’t play to his elite standards this year against the Nuggets (averaging 5 ppg less per game than his season average in the 2 losses the Nuggets gave Portland), but he’ll have a clear cut advantage with Jamal Murray being out here. I believe that’ll be too much for the Nuggets to overcome in the end, as the Nuggets most likely will have the MVP of the league in Nikola Jokic although he's already doing more than enough to make sure his team can stay competitive. The Nuggets will need to look elsewhere to help out Jokic, and I'm not so sure they'll be able to find it. Don't forget that Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic used to be teammates for a couple seasons on the Nuggets, and Denver decided to move forward and feature Jokic (while trading away Nurkic), so this could also be a revenge series of sorts for Nurkic, and he’ll be certainly be more than motivated to play well and put up big numbers while trying to wear down the Joker.
X-Factor: McCollum vs. DEN (2 games) - 19 PPG (15 FGAs/game), 50% FG, 44% 3PT, 62% TS%
Knicks (-105) vs Hawks (-115)
This is a battle of two young teams that haven’t made the playoffs in a while, and I believe we have a 7 game series on our hands accordingly in this one. Julius Randle has been unbelievable this year in averaging 24 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists per game, and he’s been even more dominant against the Hawks as well, increasing his PPG by 13 as the Knicks won all three games against Atlanta this season.
The Hawks are tied for the best record at home ATS (23-13) with a average margin of victory of +6.3 and are also exceeding expectations ATS with a +3.8 point differential, so it’ll be tough for the Knicks to go steal one on the road. But I don’t see the Hawks stealing one in New York either, so value on NYK here.
X-Factor: Rose vs. ATL (3 games) - 14 PPG (only 2 APG), 50% FG on 12 FGA/game, 54% TS%
Wizards (+700) vs 76ers (-1100)
I believe this series will be more competitive than the majority does The Wizards have the best backcourt in the league and closed the season out winning 18 of their last 25 games. The Wizards lost all 3 games against the 76ers this year, but they played them very in early in the season when Westbrook was still trying to play through a torn quad and Rui Hachimura hadn’t yet turned into the 3rd best player on WAS.
All of these teams' games were also played before March, and the Wizards didn’t hit their stride until April after picking up big man Daniel Gafford, who’s since had a huge impact on this team. Bradley Beal, who finished the season as the 2nd leading scorer in the league at 31 PPG, is averaging a whopping 36 PPG vs the 76ers while shooting over 50% from the field and 3PT line. If Westbrook can continue to play great basketball with Hachimura being consistent on both ends, then this is a 6 game series at minimum.
The Wizards will have to develop a game plan in order to double team and trap Joel Embiid. Washington will need to force Embiid to give up the ball more than he's accustomed to and force someone else to beat them. PHI was a dominant home team this season (29-7 overall) but not so dominant on the road (20-16), so if the Wizards can go in and steal a game in Philly it will greatly increase their chances for an upset.
X-Factor: Hachimura in 2 games vs. PHI (very early in the season) averaged 8 PPG on 4 FGAs, 55% FG, 68% TS% (13 percent increase from season). Over the last 18 games, however, he's averaged 13 PPG on 47% FG
Lakers (-168) vs Suns (+136)
For the first time in NBA history a 7th seed is favored to beat the 2nd seed and I see this as a tough 6 or 7 game series for each squad. The biggest knock against Phoenix is that they lack the overall experience of playoff basketball. Outside of Chris Paul and Jae Crowder, no player in their rotation has been to the playoffs and they're now facing the most experience team in the NBA - and the 2020 defending champs.
The biggest knock on their Lakers is that it's LeBron's health or bust right now, but don't forget about A.D. being at full health either. LeBron and Davis both only played in 1 game against the Suns this season and each put up monster numbers with Davis scoring 42 points in 40 minutes with 12 boards and 5 assists.
X-Factor: LeBron only played 1 game this year vs. PHX and had 38 points in 37 minutes on 66% FG and 72% TS% (12 ppg better than the regular season). The Lakers' offense is bottom 7 in offensive efficiency this season, so they’ll need big performances from LeBron, and he’s more than capable of delivering here
Jazz vs Grizzlies
The Grizzlies are only in year two of their rebuild from the grit 'n grind era, but they’re way ahead of schedule in making the playoffs this season behind 2020's rookie of the year Ja Morant. Give this young team a lot of credit, too - last year they were in the play-in tournament and lost two games. They learned from that this year and instead won two games over the Spurs/Warriors to grab the final spot out West.
The Grizzlies lost all 3 of their games against the Jazz this year, but Morant did in fact average 7 more PPG than the regular season overall against Utah while shooting 50% from the field and 40% from the 3PT line.
This should be a series that the Jazz win pretty comfortably in most situations, but with their best player in Donovan Mitchell missing so much time with that ankle injury and just getting back to practicing it could take them a couple games to knock the rust off and thus make this #1/#8 series competitive early on.
X-Factor: Jordan Clarkson in 3 games vs. MEM averaged 22 PPG (4 ppg better than the regular season average) as the perennial 6th man of the year became the Jazz's go to scorer while Mitchell was out