Bubble Wrap-Up: 10 Trends From the Opening Weekend of NBA Basketball
Photo credit: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Paul George
The NBA is back!
The bubble is off and running, with four days of games in the books. So far, so good, with no new virus cases to report and a whole lot of good, entertaining basketball.
The games come fast and furious now, so you probably didn’t catch everything. Here are 10 things you might have missed and how they can inform your betting choices going forward…
1. The Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards are terrible.
The Nets beat the Wizards Sunday in a preview of an East play-in series we’re never going to get. These teams are terrible, thanks especially to a number of stars missing from each roster.
The Wizards would have to go at least 5-3 now to make the playoffs — and that includes winning both play-in games as the 9-seed over a Nets team that would have to finish 0-8. And that’s just for the honor of getting swept by the Bucks.
These teams are so bad they were both 7.5-point underdogs already to the not-even-good Magic and Suns and lost handily. Any motivated team should beat Brooklyn or Washington with ease.
The Wizards still play Indiana, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Oklahoma City, so that’s good news for those teams. Those games all look like single-digit lines and tasty covers.
2. The New Orleans Pelicans are down but not out.
It was a rough start for all those NBA executives who wanted Zion Williamson in the playoffs, as New Orleans blew a lead to Utah in the opener, then never had a chance against the Clippers. The Pelicans are only a half-game up on the 13-seed now, and many assume they’re done.
Not so fast. Those were the two toughest games left on the Pelicans’ schedule. The six remaining games are against sub-.500 teams. That includes one against the Wizards and two against the Kings, who have been awful.
It turns out good teams are good and sub-.500 teams fighting for playoff berths are not. Only one sub-.500 team has beaten a surefire playoff team, with the Suns upsetting the Mavs. The Pelicans are still just 1.5 games out of the 9-seed and a play-in, and they’ll probably be favored in every remaining game.
But it has to start today against Memphis. Don’t forget, just making the 9-seed isn’t enough — that team has to be within four games of the 8-seed, too. If the Pelicans lose Monday, they fall 4.5 games back from the 8-seed. They have to win this one. All in on the Zion train?
3. The West playoff race is well and truly wide open to every team now.
The Grizzlies started 0-2 and are now within four games of every team below them. Their losses to the Spurs and Blazers were especially damaging since those are the two closest teams now in the standings.
You know that Grizzlies-Pelicans game today? That’s the last sub-.500 team on Memphis’ schedule. This could get ugly if they can’t right the ship. The Grizz are no lock to make the playoffs. They’re not even certain to make the play-in game at this point.
The five teams below the Grizzlies are all within two games of each other. The Spurs and Suns started 2-0, but it’s a tough road ahead. Both play only playoff teams the rest of the way, other than one Spurs-Pelicans game.
The Blazers look like the best of the bunch but couldn’t pull the upset over the Celtics. They’ll face five playoff teams before a Nets finale. Portland looks like a different team entirely with Jusuf Nurkic back healthy, but it’ll be a tough road. The Kings are still in this thing, too … barely.
Each of these teams has a real chance. There are many losses to come. Three or four more wins might do the trick. If you’re feeling one of them as an underdog, you’ve got your motivation.
4. If you’re betting on an underdog, you may want to take the moneyline.
Favorites are 12-7 straight-up through four days of ball, though they were 5-1 Friday. Favorites are 10-8-1 ATS, so there’s not much to glean there.
But wait! Of those eight underdogs to cover, seven won outright.
Now that is a trend worth keeping an eye on. Many of these seeding games have been tight, with underdogs staying in games and often finishing the job. That trend could continue as some of the favorites start to look toward the playoffs while lower teams fight for playoff positioning.
If you’re thinking about the dog, you may want to put your money where your mouth is and go all in on that moneyline.
5. The Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks have effectively clinched the 1-seeds and have nothing left to play for.
The Lakers and Bucks opened the bubble with big wins over serious contenders, and that may be enough for both until about the second round.
These teams are almost certainly locked into the 1-seeds, unless they lose every remaining game. And with no home-court advantage for the Finals, that means neither team has anything left to play for.
The Bucks and Lakers played hard in their respective second games — they just lost to really good teams. Just know that both teams have bigger fish to fry now, and that any opponent will likely be more motivated down the stretch of any close game.
Milwaukee may let Eric Bledsoe take his time returning from injury and give Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton a bit of rest, while the Lakers already seem intent on getting players like Kyle Kuzma and Dion Waiters into a rhythm at the expense of their stars.
These are developmental ramp-up games for Milwaukee and Los Angeles now. The season numbers may not matter as much, and oddsmakers will price that in a bit but maybe not enough. A motivated opponent can get the upset.
6. Paul George looks like healthy 2019 PG again, finally.
George has been terrific in both games, scoring 30 and 28 points with 14 threes combined. He’s been outstanding on defense, recording three steals each game and swarming opponents on the wing.
In short, he has been the Paul George who made All-Defense and finished third in the MVP race last year, and this for the first time all season.
The Clippers have been considered one of the favorites all season, but they’re always third behind the Lakers and Bucks. This Paul George can be the best player in any game, and a healthy PG gives the Clippers something no other team in the NBA has: two superstar wings in a league that craves them.
With this PG, finally the Clippers look like a legitimate title contender. You may find value on their odds before everyone notices.
One thing not in their favor? The Clippers look pretty locked into the 2-seed, and it’s very likely they’ll face the Dallas Mavericks in the opening round. The Mavs still have the highest-rated offense in NBA history and the underlying metrics of a top-five team, but their two losses make them the likely 7-seed.
Dallas was my longshot sleeper heading into the bubble, but those odds take a hit with an opening-round Clippers matchup.
7. Scoring is up around the NBA… but so are the lines.
Friday was a great day to bet the over. All six Friday games went over, and all 12 team overs hit.
There was a lot of speculation entering the bubble about whether offense or defense would be more ready. Friday sure made it look like offense was the answer. But the unders have gone 9-4 in the other games, leaving us with 10 overs and 9 unders so far, a clean split.
You probably feel like scoring is up, and it is. Overall scoring remains up this season, and some of these teams going over are hanging monster numbers. But don’t forget the bookmakers know the trends, too, and they’re setting high lines hoping you just opt in and root for the points.
There’s no clear trend in either direction here yet. Just don’t trick yourself into believing the overs are there for the taking.
8. The Utah Jazz miss Bojan Bogdanovic, and they’re struggling to score big time.
Bogdanovic had season-ending wrist surgery during the hiatus, and the Jazz don’t look the same without him.
Utah retooled in the offseason, trading in defensive stalwarts Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors for an upgrade on offense in Mike Conley and Bogdanovic. Conley never hit, but Bogdanovic added serious spacing and shot-making to this offense.
The Jazz offense has been turgid without Bojan, scoring just 106 and 94 points and going cold for long stretches in each game. Their bench is also struggling, with everyone shifting up a role to cover Bogdanovic’s 33 minutes per game.
The Jazz are a prime candidate for unders these next couple weeks. That works for both team unders (if they can’t score) and game unders since Utah’s defense will be its best shot at a win.
One team that could benefit? The San Antonio Spurs are the 9-seed right now and still play Utah twice. If you’re out on the Jazz, San Antonio playoff shares may be a good bet.
9. The Toronto Raptors still look like defending champions.
Toronto has played just one game, but it has the most impressive win of the bubble: a 107-92 victory over the Lakers.
If you’re a Raptors believer, that game had everything you love about them. Nick Nurse put on a coaching clinic, totally neutralizing Anthony Davis, while OG Anunoby hung with LeBron all night and scored a few buckets of his own. Kyle Lowry did Kyle Lowry things, and the Raptors played tough defense all game and showed the heart of a champion, pulling away late.
This has been a near perfect start for the Raptors, up 3.5 games on the Celtics for the 2-seed. That matters in the East since it means a playoff matchup against the Magic or Nets.
It could get even better. Boston is only two games ahead of Miami, while Indiana is still expected to fall below Philadelphia. If things bounce the Raps’ direction (and they’ve been known to catch a few lucky bounces), they could end up the 2-seed with Milwaukee, Boston and Philadelphia all on the other side of the bracket. That could leave some juicy Toronto odds for winning the East, or maybe more.
10. Basketball is finally back, and it feels great.
Already tired out? We’re just getting started. The games start right after lunch every weekday, too, and they continue that way for at least the next two weeks and probably most of the first round and the rest of August.
The overall play has been quite good thus far, and the bubble appears to be working. Cross your fingers and start scrounging for a few extra bucks. There will be endless opportunities to bet and sweat NBA hoops.