The first round of the NBA Playoffs is almost always a snoozefest. There’s usually one, maybe two super compelling series, and the rest of the time it’s favorites going through the motions.
That doesn’t appear that’ll be the case this year, however. From Toronto’s historic inconsistency, to Boston’s injury woes, to the Warriors without Curry, to the Thunder’s volatility, this may be the most vulnerable crop of favorites we’ve seen in quite some time.
But where’s the value? Here’s a look at the best series to fade the favorites.
All odds via Westgate as of Thursday evening.
RAPTORS -700 / WIZARDS +500
The Raptors have done everything we could’ve asked. They had the best record in the East. They had the third-best net rating in the league. They beat good teams and bad teams and mediocre teams.
And yet, the team has never won a Game 1, and this core lost first-round series in 2014 and 2015, including one to this very same Wizards team.
On the other hand, this Raptors core has never lost a first-round series to a team that didn’t have Paul Pierce.
The 5-1 odds don’t represent outstanding value to fade Washington in a 1-8 matchup. The Raptors split the season series with the Wizards, but Washington really did slump to finish the year. It was basically the giant elephant in this situation:
Toronto slipped a little over the last month, but the Raptors have a +10.4 net rating at home. This is the best team in franchise history. There’s just no way to feel like the Wizards can take four from them.
However, take a good long look at that Game 1 line of Wizards +8.
CELTICS -155 / BUCKS +135
This is going to get hammered. No Gordon Hayward. No Kyrie Irving. No Marcus Smart. A Bucks team with more top-end talent. It all screams upset. But something to consider: The Celtics were +3.0 per 100 possessions vs. the Bucks this year without Irving or Smart on the floor. With Jayson Tatum and Horford, they were +19.0.
The Bucks have become a little too trendy of an upset pick. The Celtics are more disciplined, have better balance and will give absolute maximum effort. Kyrie Irving’s absence drastically lowers Boston’s ceiling. But it doesn’t impact its floor considerably. The Celtics can still play to a requisite level to beat a flawed Bucks team, even if it takes a long while.
PHILADELPHIA 76ERS -550 / MIAMI HEAT +400
Trust the process? Take the dog.
The Sixers are on a 16-game winning streak, but almost all of them came against teams that were tanking. Philadelphia went 2-2 in the regular season vs. this Heat team. There’s ample evidence that playoff experience is overrated by the books. But the Sixers are brutally young, Joel Embiid’s face requires a mask, and Markelle Fultz has been back just two weeks.
Oh, and Brett Brown has never coached a playoff series. On the other side, you get 4-1 odds on Erik Spoelstra and his band of faceless ninjas ready to pull the upset.
The Heat are a hard team to scout because they don’t have a focal point. You can’t try to take away one guy. They have athletes, shooters, bigs and great guards.
Yes, the Sixers were a significantly better team throughout the course of the regular season — there’s a 4.5-point net differential gap between the two — but that’s baked into the 4-1 odds. Historically, 3 vs. 6 matchups have been vulnerable for the favorites, and this Heat team might be able to exploit certain issues with the Sixers, like Simmons’ shooting problems and Embiid’s turnover issues.
It’s worth a serious look.
CAVALIERS -700 / PACERS +500
LeBron James has never lost a first-round series.
Say it again.
LeBron James has never lost a first-round series. (Perhaps even more impressively, he’s won 21 straight first-round games.)
So you’re going to have to figure out if this is the first year that trend ends. But let me put together the value here.
You’re getting 5-1 odds that Indiana, which has nothing to lose, a balanced scoring and a solid defense, beats Cleveland, a bottom-20 defense for the entirety of the season. You’re betting that the Pacers, who went 3-1 against the Cavs in the regular season, can beat James four times in seven games in a year that has been plagued with dysfunction, a new roster and multiple players with zero playoff experience (Cedi Osman, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr.).
Here’s the key: If not for LeBron, you’d absolutely be all over this. The Cavs’ resume is that of a paper fraud that’s ripe to get run all over and implode in the first round.
But they have LeBron.
So that’s what this comes down to. Is 5-1 against LeBron alone worth it, when, again, he’s never lost a first-round series?
I kind of think it is. That’s how bad the Cavs’ defense has been, and if Cleveland implodes under the weight of James’ impending free agency, why not in the first round? I wouldn’t want to risk major exposure, but you’re essentially betting that James can’t lift a mediocre team past a squad that’s been undervalued all year. The Pacers finished 12th in offense and 14th in defense. They have shooters, athletes, bigs, good coaching and a star in Victor Oladipo. I like 5-1, but I’m staying away at anything less.
ROCKETS -5000 / WOLVES +1500
I mean, 15-1 sounds great, but this is a horrible matchup. Case in point: Houston made 35 more 3-pointers than Minnesota in four head-to-head matchups between the two this season. I want to get a good look at what the Rockets-in-six vs. Rockets-in-four/five numbers look like, but there’s no way you can feel good about a terrible defense against the league’s best offense, and a terrible 3-point shooting team against a historically transcendent one.
WARRIORS -1600 / SPURS +900
Nope. Whole lot of nope. The Warriors have been garbage for two months, but the Spurs finished the season under .500 when playing teams above .500. They’re only here because they beat up on teams like Sacramento and Orlando. Without Kawhi Leonard, they don’t have nearly enough firepower to hang with even the Steph Curry-less Warriors,.
That Warriors line is pointless to play, but San Antonio shuffled and stumbled to the finish line like a zombie horde. The Warriors have the high ground.
BLAZERS -190 / PELICANS +160
The Pelicans are up to +170 in some places, but I still wish you could get this number closer to +200. With the Blazers finishing the season as strong as they did behind an MVP candidate in Damian Lillard and the Pelicans without DeMarcus Cousins, I thought there might be better value here. Even still, this one’s pretty nice.
The Blazers’ offense is heavily reliant on shots out of the pick-and-roll by Lillard and C.J. McCollum, and the Pelicans are the fourth-best team against it. The Blazers rank 20th in defending the post, and with Anthony Davis, the Pelicans score well there. New Orleans has bodies to muscle inside along with quick, shifty guards and the best player in the series.
The Pelicans shouldn’t be favored, but if you’re looking for the most vulnerable high seed, it might be this one if it weren’t for …
THUNDER -145 / JAZZ +125
OKC won the season series 3-1, but two of those matchups were without Rudy Gobert. Donovan Mitchell (pictured above) was missing in another one, and Andre Roberson is now out.
In the deciding game with both teams healthy, the Jazz led the entire time and entered the fourth with an eight-point lead before OKC stormed back. Without Roberson, the Thunder are more vulnerable and less disciplined defensively. The Jazz have played better basketball over the past three months and know they can win in OKC.
Steven Adams presents a serious challenge for Rudy Gobert, and Paul George will be a handful, but Utah’s depth is considerably better and Mitchell may be the X-factor. Utah could have finished third, which likely flips the odds here, so getting plus money with the Jazz is pretty great.