Locky: It’s Not Too Late to Find Value Betting on Boston

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Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

There are several axioms that sports fans and bettors use when they talk about the NBA. One of the most common ones: In the playoffs, the best team always wins. We’ve seen notable exceptions to this, of course: Most people feel as though, at the time, the 2004 Pistons were not the best team but still beat the Lakers in the Finals because Los Angeles was so dysfunctional. Since then, history has been massaged, and we recognize how great the Pistons were as a team. But we still absolutely tell ourselves that in Best-of-7 NBA series, the superior team always wins. You can set your watch to it.

And that’s why this year’s Boston Celtics team is so perplexing to so many people. Are they the better team in this series against Cleveland? There are many who believe they haven’t been the better team in ANY of the series they’ve played, and that it was impossible to see this type of run coming based on injuries and the regular season.

Let’s separate fact from fiction with this Celtics team.

 


Boston Has Exceeded Expectations Every Round So Far

The markets have been wrong on Boston really from the start. The Celtics received very little support in the Milwaukee series, hovering around -160 to -180 before Game 1, and books were slow to move them into a dominant favorite position.

The narrative in the early part of the series was that, purely via Brad Stevens’ incredible coaching prowess, MAYBE they could squeak out games against Giannis Antetokounmpo & Co. despite having what at the time was viewed as lesser talent. When Boston won Game 7 at home, the season was already called a success and people were willing to move on to bigger and better teams.

In retrospect, that was the most competitive series they’ve played up to now, and maybe instead of insulting Joe Prunty game after game in the betting guides on this site, I should have instead praised his ability to give Boston a game so many different times. (Sorry Joe! But not really. Mike Budenholzer will do way better with those guys.) Were the Celtics the better team in that series? In retrospect, of course they were, but at the time it was debatable.

The true madness started against Philadelphia. After opening in the -350 to -380 range on most sites, the Sixers were quickly bet up close to -500 (!) before Game 1 despite not having home-court advantage and featuring a duo of star players with no postseason experience. As someone holding -380, I was duped along with so many others. It quickly became clear that, no matter what level of success the Celtics had in the series, books were going to favor Philadelphia extensively in both single-game and series markets because everyone thought the Sixers were so much better.

It grew so insane that, down 0-3 in the series, the Sixers were still just +500 to come back and win — something no team in NBA history had yet accomplished. Yikes. There are many who are still probably waiting for the Sixers to somehow win. Was Boston the better team in that series? Many still argue the Sixers missed a lot of open shots and Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid just needed more seasoning.


Where We Are Now

And now Boston is up 2-0 against LeBron James, winning both games at home after closing around +230 to +250 in the series before Game 1. The Celtics have looked utterly dominant in those games: Game 1 was a blowout because Cleveland did not match Boston’s level of intensity or play, and Game 2 featured a more “classic” LeBron in the first half, but a combination of Boston’s defense and a neck injury to James allowed the Celtics to pull away late.

There is a mounting case to be made that Boston is absolutely the better team in this series (in fact, I’m not sure what the case is that the Celtics aren’t right now?) and yet oddsmakers are quick to undervalue Boston with a 2-0 lead, knowing we all deep down believe LeBron will magically find a way to get there.

The Celtics are a mere -220 right now in the series despite the fact that more than 90% of teams with 2-0 leads win the series (again, best team always wins). Plus, we’ve already seen a very high-level LeBron performance still not be enough to get it done. It’s fascinating how we may go through this entire postseason with no one really trusting the Celtics until they lose to Golden State in the Finals — and even then maybe they’ll be feistier than we thought.


Is It Too Late to Find Value on Betting Boston?

So how do you attack such a market? Boston is -220 but will be an underdog in every game the rest of the series, which is a pretty wild contrast, similar to the Philly series. I think betting the Celtics at that price is reasonable with the understanding that Cleveland has to win four of the next five, and maybe Boston really just is the better team and we’re all once again slow to realize it.

What I’d recommend if you like Boston is just take the Celtics in single games, and specifically Game 5, where they will be, at absolute worst, a tiny favorite, and more likely, a pick or a tiny dog. You don’t win any money if the Celtics sweep; that’s sort of your punishment for not getting involved now. But if the two Cleveland games split, or the Cavs win both, the Celtics probably have to win Game 5 to win the series, and you’re getting -110 there as opposed to -220 right now.

There’s nothing foolproof about it; it’s just how I’d choose to play Boston if you were interested. I view Game 5 as the pivot point of the entire series. If the Cavs start to gather momentum, it means they are exploiting matchups and finding combinations that are effective, which is something that hasn’t happened yet and can very likely, in combination with LeBron, win them the series.

When LeBron was with Cleveland the first time, he lost to Orlando and then Boston in consecutive years, causing him to go to Miami. Although LeBron is a more polished, accomplished superstar than he was 10 years ago, you look at those supporting casts and almost roll your eyes at this point. Mo Williams as the second option? Completely-way-too-old Shaquille O’Neal at center? Anderson Varejao as the best option off the bench?

History has not been kind to those rosters. But isn’t that a little similar to what we’re seeing now? Kevin Love is better than all those guys, but after that? Tristan Thompson isn’t Varejao? Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood aren’t Daniel Gibson? George Hill isn’t Williams? I mean those comparisons less stylistically and more in terms of effectiveness, but it’s not like the talent pool is so much deeper now. LeBron torched the Magic that whole series nine years ago and it still didn’t matter; Cleveland lost in six. This year, we’ve seen very little to indicate the matchup is even particularly close.

I guess what I’m saying this year is this: Although the markets don’t want to believe it, maybe Boston really is the better team. And the better team in the NBA almost always wins.