How To Find Betting Value On The Lakers’ & Bucks’ 0-1 Starts

Credit:

Harry How/Getty Images. Pictured: LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

  • The Lakers and Bucks each opened their first-round NBA playoff series with a loss.
  • Just how concerned should bettors be about this pair of 1-seeds?
  • Brandon Anderson analyzes the betting market to find potential value.

Day 1 of the NBA playoffs had its moments, but the results were ultimately as expected. All four favorites won and covered, and an early expectation was in place: the playoff favorites are going to roll.

And then the Orlando Magic shocked the Milwaukee Bucks with a dominant Game 1 victory, 122-110, in which the Bucks never looked comfortable or particularly competitive. In the nightcap, the Los Angeles Lakers went cold against the red-hot Portland Trail Blazers, and Portland won 100-93.

For only the second time in the modern NBA playoffs, both 8-seeds are up 1-0 on a 1-seed. So is the sky really falling for the Lakers and Bucks? Just how worried should bettors be?

Los Angeles Lakers

Let’s start with 93. That’s the number of points the Lakers put up in Game 1. Only 93 points!!

A few other numbers: 122, 133, 131, 121, 122, 115, 102, 128 and 135. That’s how many points the Blazers allowed in their other nine games in the Orlando bubble, an ugly average of 123.2 points per game. Portland allowed fewer than 99 only twice all season, once to the Knicks and once to the Bulls.

And then the Lakers scored a measly 93 points. That included just 37 in the second half, a number Portland is routinely giving up in a quarter these days. With 7:21 left to play, LeBron James hit a three to push the Los Angeles lead to six. The Lakers then scored on only one of their next nine possessions and made three more field goals the rest of the game, all of them at the rim.

The Lakers couldn’t shoot to save their lives in Game 1. They went 5-of-32 behind the arc, a pathetic 15.6%. Perhaps even more worrying, they shot only 44.6% inside the arc. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green were horrible, JaVale McGee was unplayable, and the Lakers simply couldn’t find anyone who could hit a shot.

On the one hand, it’s easy to just shrug this off as shot variance. The Lakers ranked bottom-10 in the NBA in three-point attempts and percentage, but even that put them at 34.9% on the season. Shoot 34.9% here, and they make 11 threes instead of five and win comfortably. Don’t forget, even with that miserable shooting night, the Lakers were up six late.

But variance works both ways. The Blazers had the league’s No. 3 offense and have been molten lava in the bubble but shot only 39% and scored 100, a full 26 points fewer than their bubble average. Los Angeles will score more going forward, but so will Portland.

The worry here isn’t just Portland. These are the same Lakers problems we already knew about all season. The Lakers never found that third great player. Shuffle up these rosters and draft guys for this year’s playoffs. If LeBron and Anthony Davis go top two, how many Blazers get taken next before you grab another Laker? Would Carmelo Anthony be the third best Laker right now? Would Gary Trent Jr. be a huge addition to this roster? Would Hassan Whiteside be a monster upgrade at center?

And for that matter, are you sure you’re not taking Damian Lillard until  No. 3?

The cavalry is not coming. Rajon Rondo may be back soon, but he’s not good on defense anymore and isn’t going to solve any shooting woes. Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith won’t provide answers off the bench. McGee has been awful all bubble. Green and KCP may be bad but they’re also going to keep playing because the Lakers don’t have other options.

At some point, you are what you are. The Lakers are the 1-seed, and they were wonderful all season with an excellent defense and two MVP candidates. That was March. Los Angeles is 3-6 in the bubble, which is terrible no matter how valid some of the excuses are. Their half-court offense has been below league-average all year and looks even worse in the bubble.

Remember that LeBron MVP statement win against the Bucks back in March? That was the Lakers’ last double-digit win. Portland, meanwhile, is now 8-2 in the bubble. It doesn’t matter that Portland stunk in December or that L.A. was killing it in January. The Blazers are not that team anymore, and it’s starting to look like the Lakers aren’t either.

And, look. The Blazers are not awesome. They’re playing inspired ball, but piling way too many minutes on their starters, and eked out four wins by 11 points just to get here. This is still an average team with perhaps the worst defense in the playoffs. C.J. McCollum is playing with a broken back, and the team lacks options at forward and on the wing.

But that’s the team that beat the Lakers in Game 1! And, spoiler alert: if the Lakers do get past Portland, there are much better teams waiting down the road, teams with better defense and more wings, teams not playing their guys 40-plus minutes a game just to get by.

If the Lakers barely survive this Portland team, how optimistic can we be against the Rockets, or against the Clippers or Bucks?

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks are less of an immediate concern, if only because the Orlando Magic are… what’s the word… not good.

The Magic dominated the Bucks in Game 1, winning each individual quarter outside of a meaningless three at the final buzzer. Without Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon, Orlando rolled out Gary Clark and James Ennis in the starting lineup and spaced Milwaukee out, firing threes all game. Nikola Vucevic shot eight threes and made five of them — both problematic numbers — and Clark had a career game with four threes.

The Magic are not typically a team that shoots great. They averaged 11.1 threes a game at 34.3%, both bottom 10 in the NBA. But this is not a typical Magic roster. Orlando remade their offense with four or five shooters on the court at all times, and Milwaukee looked lost at times trying to cover them all.

The Bucks defense is designed to shut things down at the rim and give up a multitude of three-point attempts. They allowed the most three-point attempts and makes in the entire NBA, on purpose. But what happens when a team pushes that equation to its extreme, and what if variance rears its ugly head?

Orlando may not have three more games with 16 threes, but that’s not exactly an unreachable number in today’s league. Next round, the Bucks could face the Heat, who ranked second in the NBA in three-point percentage. If Ennis and Clark are getting open threes all game, what will happen when Duncan Robinson, Goran Dragic, and Tyler Herro are getting those looks? If Milwaukee gets by Miami, it probably faces Toronto or Boston. The Celtics are an above-average three-point team while the Raptors are top-five.

There’s also the question of coaching and rotations. Mike Budenholzer has been a magician with this Bucks roster for two straight regular seasons, but his rotations in the playoffs remain questionable. Bud consistently sticks with “what works” far too long. Budenholzer is from the Gregg Popovich coaching tree, and that’s a Pop trademark. This is what we do, it worked all year, go ahead and beat us with what we do best.

Bud could face Erik Spoelstra next round, then Nick Nurse or Brad Stevens after that. Those coaches will make adjustments both in and between games, adjusting their deep, versatile rosters to the opponent in front of them. Milwaukee has consistently shown it will not do that, and its rotations in Game 1 were troubling once again.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was still capped at 34 minutes, and Khris Middleton played only 31. The Bucks played 10 guys at least 10 minutes. They played Pat Connaughton and Marvin Williams 39 minutes combined when both were terrible and even dusted off Kyle Korver for 10 minutes.

All season we wondered what Milwaukee’s best lineup was. Do the Bucks know the answer? It involves Giannis, Middleton and three other guys, but which three? And if those two stars rested all season (and bubble) for the playoffs, where are the minutes adjustment now? Which two or three guys should get the bulk of the bench minutes, and who should be watching? Milwaukee never answered those questions last summer, and Game 1 showed the same problems.

At some point, you are what you are. The Bucks are the 1-seed, and they were wonderful all season with an historically great defense and the clear MVP. That was February. Milwaukee is 3-6 in the bubble, and it’s won only four of its last 14 games. And sure, none of those games mattered much since the Bucks are the 1-seed anyway, but that’s still 10 losses in 14! Milwaukee had lost only eight games all season before that.

The Bucks defense hasn’t recaptured its regular season magic yet in the bubble, and the questions about half-court scoring and playoff rotations and adjustments were already there. They’re even louder after a Game 1 failure.

Can bettors be optimistic about either team?

It’s easy to build an optimistic case for both teams.

The Bucks were the best team in the NBA all season and brought a healthy, intact roster to the bubble. Defense typically takes longer to round into shape at the start of a season, so the D should come around. Last year’s champs lost Game 1 to Orlando too, and the Bucks still have six games to win four. And they’re still playing the worst team in the playoffs.

The Lakers missed a bazillion shots and still almost won Game 1. They still have the best two players in the series and are still rounding into shape. Rondo will be back soon, and history tells us LeBron will get better as the series goes on.

The Lakers also have a trump card waiting in the wings: Anthony Davis at center. The Blazers played real minutes with Jusuf Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside sharing the court, and they can do that as long as the Lakers insist on having Dwight Howard or McGee out there. Everything changes with Davis at center. That takes one of Portland’s best players off the court, and it forces the Blazers to field another smaller player, where Portland somehow has even fewer options than L.A.

Davis at center will be necessary against Houston and Milwaukee too. It’s coming. It’s always been coming. The optimist will be glad the Lakers may be pushed to this card early while they still have time to adjust. Remember when the Warriors were out of options and had to go small, moving Draymond Green to center and inserting Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup? The Lakers have no Iggy, but Davis at center gets Kyle Kuzma on the court and opens up this sluggish offense. Every Lakers lineup with Howard or McGee at center is a relief to the opponent. Davis at center is coming, and soon.

If you’re still really confident about the Lakers, their Game 1 loss is a boon to your wallet. The Lakers are down to -220 to win the series, and their championship odds have nearly doubled to +500. If you waited for a better Lakers price, you just found it.

But there’s one more worry.

Every result matters more without home-court advantage

With everyone playing in Orlando, there’s no home-court advantage. We already knew that.

Some pundits speculated that no home-court advantage would even the playing field, giving the underdogs the edge. Others figured the favorites would be even tougher, with no potential boost of a Game 3 emotional charge in front of the home crowd for the underdog.

But I’m wondering if the lack of home-court advantage does something else entirely. What if it just makes every result matter that much more?

The Lakers are 6.5-point favorites in Game 2. With no home court to swing things, the line should be near that number all series. It may adjust a tick up or down, but it won’t swing wildly like it would with home court advantage.

Typically, books make home court worth around three points. With home court in play, the Lakers would still have three more games as near double-digit favorites, games they’d be expected to win around 80% of the time. Win those three, and LeBron only needs a single road win to take the series. And remember, the Lakers are still slightly favored in the road games too.

The bubble removes those three games where the Lakers would be huge favorites. Instead they’ll just be around -6 — better, but not by a lot. The Lakers were up those six points halfway through the fourth quarter. One cold stretch later and the sky is falling.

The math is this simple: it’s far easier to win three of six than four of seven.

The oddsmakers are giving Portland around an implied 30% chance of winning Game 2. Assuming games are mostly independent, the chance of a 30% underdog winning at least four of seven games is 12.6%, about 1-in-8. But what happens when you give the underdog a Game 1 win? Now they only need three wins in six, and those odds jump to 25.6%. A single victory has doubled their chances.

And that’s if the Blazers truly have only a 30% chance of beating the Lakers on a neutral court. You watched Game 1. Did L.A. look more than twice as likely to beat Portland? They didn’t to me. Move the Blazers to 35% to win each game and their series odds go over 35%. Give Portland 42% each remaining game and the series is a coin flip.

Without three heavily-favored home games for the favorite, a Game 1 loss becomes much more meaningful. Take two teams exactly equal, each with a 50% chance of winning a best of seven without home court advantage. But give Team A one victory and suddenly they’re a 65-to-35% favorite. A single victory makes Team A nearly a 2-to-1 favorite!

Say Damian Lillard comes out and drops 55 points in Game 2, par for the course the way he’s been playing. Now the Blazers are up 2-0, and the Lakers need to win four of five. You watched Game 1. Did you see a team ready to win four of five?

Milwaukee’s immediate future is not so dire. The Bucks are heavy favorites against the Magic in any game, opening Game 2 at -12.5, and still massive chalk to advance. Milwaukee’s warning signs point further down the road. There’s a reason the lines for the Bucks barely budged after their loss. The Lakers are a concern both short and long term.

So if you’re buying real worry for the Lakers or Bucks, how can you take a position against them?

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How do we bet against the Bucks or Lakers?

You shouldn’t necessarily run out and bet the house on Portland or Orlando. The Magic are still a huge long shot, and the Blazers are still around +275. That implies a better than 35% chance to win the series, which implies around a 35% chance in each game. If you’re worried about the Lakers, that feels about right, but it’s not offering much value.

The real value comes on futures.

If the Lakers are barely good enough to beat the Blazers, they may not be serious title contenders. Could that open the door to a Houston Rockets run? Suddenly Houston only has to get through one elite team to get to the Finals instead of two, and a Houston-L.A. series bet could pay off.

If the Bucks have fallen back to the East, who benefits? Miami could have a real shot at the upset next round, so keep an eye on that series price. And things suddenly look quite rosy for the Raptors. They match up well with Milwaukee anyway, and they’ll now either face a Celtics team missing Gordon Hayward (sprained ankle) next round or avoid them entirely.

And if you’re worried about both the Lakers and the Bucks? The NBA has had a “big three” all year long. One of those teams is rounding into shape, with Paul George looking healthy for the Los Angeles Clippers and better than he’s played all year. If the other two  have serious question marks, the “big three” could be down to a “big one.” The Clippers are already the betting favorite, but their odds would skyrocket if the Bucks or Lakers slip further.

If you think this is all nonsense and still believe in the Lakers and Bucks, I don’t blame you. It’s just one game, and congrats on your improved odds.

But if you agree the warning signs are growing stronger and wonder if there’s fire behind all this smoke, you need to act now before the futures markets catch up. Good luck!

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