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NBA Odds, Picks & Projections: Bets for Playoff Game 1s, Including Lakers vs. Suns & Grizzlies vs. Jazz (May 23)

NBA Odds, Picks & Projections: Bets for Playoff Game 1s, Including Lakers vs. Suns & Grizzlies vs. Jazz (May 23) article feature image

Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Donovan Mitchell (left) and Rudy Gobert.

  • Raheem Palmer is back for the NBA playoffs, projecting totals and spread for the first four games of every series.
  • He also made picks for four of this weekend's game, including Trial Blazers at Nuggets and Lakers at Suns.
  • See which side he picked in those games and more.

I've given out my betting projections twice a week every week this season, but for the NBA Playoffs, I'm switching things up a bit. For the postseason, my model will show projected team totals, projected combined totals, projected spreads and the implied odds for the moneyline for the first four home games of each series.

Unlike the regular season, there's no advantageous traveling spots which could impact point spreads and totals. There's no back-to-backs, three games in four nights, five games in seven nights or load management which should impact a team's power rating for that game.

In the postseason, teams play each other multiple times over the course of a week with the biggest variable being the change of venue from Games 1-2 to Games 3-4. Given the structure of the postseason, typically I create spreads and totals for Games 1-2 and 3-4 and adjust game by game if necessary should anything change.

Those changes could consist of injuries, lineup changes, the desperation factor in game 2 should the higher seed get upset in Game 1 or something happens that causes us determine that one team is much better than we anticipated. Often times, we're forced as bettors to pay a premium in order to back teams down 0-2 coming home for Game 3 or to back a team up 3-0 looking to complete a sweep.

Nevertheless, here are my playoff projections for Games 1-2 and pre-adjusted projections for Games 3-4. This provides spreads and totals for home and away games for every team in the playoffs for which you can use as an additional tool for your handicapping.

Note: My projections won't be updated in real-time throughout the day, but Action's PRO Projections tool is dynamic and will reflect the latest injury and lineup news.

I’ll also be highlighting some of the slate’s most intriguing matchups with in-depth, game-level analysis that goes beyond the numbers.

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Click on a game to skip ahead
Miami Heat at Milwaukee Bucks
Saturday @  2:05 p.m. ET
Boston Celtics at Brooklyn Nets 
Saturday @ 8:00 p.m. ET
Portland Trailblazers at Denver Nuggets
Saturday @ 10:35 p.m. ET
Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns
Sunday @ 3:35 p.m. ET
Memphis Grizzlies at Utah Jazz
Sunday @ 9:35 p.m. ET

Although projections give us a solid baseline for what a number should be, it's also important to handicap each matchup for things that the numbers can't tell us.

Check out my analysis for of four games from this weekend's slate.

Miami Heat at Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee Bucks -4.5 (William Hill)
Saturday @ 2:05 p.m. ET

The 2021 NBA Playoffs opens with a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference semifinal matchup in which the Miami Heat disposed of the Milwaukee Bucks in just five games. Both teams are much different since then with the Bucks replacing Eric Bledsoe with Jrue Holiday which provides them with a much better playmaker, scorer and defender to help lock down Miami's guards who dominated over the course of the series.

Fresh off the bubble the Miami Heat struggled to regain their past form, dealing with a post Finals hangover, suffering injuries with absences due to health and safety protocols, as well as the free agency loss of Jae Crowder who shot 44.5% from behind the arc and was one of the primary defenders in building a wall for Giannis Antetokounmpo in last year's playoff series. Although the Heat did pick up 17-year veteran, Trevor Ariza, he hasn't made the impact Crowder did.

The biggest difference in the Heat since last season is their offense which is 19th in Offensive Rating, scoring 111.8 points per 100 possessions in their non garbage time minutes according to Cleaning the Glass. Offensively, Heat shooters have seen their 3-point shooting percentages plummet from last season, with Tyler Herro going from 38.9% to 36%, Duncan Robinson going from 44.6% to 40.8%, while Crowder and Kelly Olynyk, each of whom shot over 40%, are gone. Of course the Achilles heel for this Bucks defense continues to be the frequency of three-point field goals they allow.

They're 26th in opponent three-point frequency, allowing opposing teams to shoot 38.9% from behind the arc. Unlike last season, they've been trying different defensive techniques to limit three-point attempts, and I believe Herro's performance in the bubble was a fluke given the outrageous shooting numbers we've seen with no fans. With Goran Dragic a year older and Herro returning to his previous form, how do the Heat keep up offensively?

Although this offense has improved lately and they are 8-2 in their last 10 games, the Heat beat up on bottom feeders such as the Spurs, Cavaliers, Hornets, Timberwolves, Celtics without Jaylen Brown (2x), and Pistons, with the 76ers being the only team with a winning record on this list. Despite that, Miami is just 18th in midrange shooting percentage (40.8%) and 19th in 3-point shooting percentage (36.2%). The shooting that made them such a scary team in the bubble last year has regressed.

The Heat are also a poor rebounding team, ranking 24th in offensive rebound rate (24%). They’re getting fewer shots than their opponents, which is troublesome against a Bucks team which is third in defensive rebound rate.

Unfortunately we can't take anything from this season's matchups between the Bucks and Heat as Jimmy Butler didn't play in all three of their games this season. Nonetheless, I think Butler and Bam Adebayo, who both generate most of their offense at the rim, should struggle against a Bucks defense which is fourth in opponent field goal percentage at the rim (61.6%).

Likewise, Antetokounmpo and this Bucks offense which is third in field goal percentage at the rim, shooting 67.8%, should have no problems scoring in the paint against this Heat defense which is allowing teams to shoot 64.7% at the rim.

Can the Heat build a wall and keep Antetokounmpo out of the paint? Can Holiday create plays off the dribble to keep this Heat defense honest? I'm buying the latter, not the former.

This Bucks team is hungry, they've faced disappointment two years in a row, they've upgraded their point guard, and more importantly, this team isn't deep enough for head coach Mike Budenholzer to not play his stars optimal minutes.

My model makes this game Bucks -5.7, and I believe we're seeing a discount based on what happened last year. I've spoken at length about the Miami Heat being a team I've wanted to fade in the postseason, and here's my chance. I'll lay the 4.5 points on the Bucks as they should win this game as well as the series. I also laid the -275 on the Bucks to win the series in addition to Bucks -1.5 games.

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Boston Celtics at Brooklyn Nets

Over 229
Saturday @ 8:00 p.m. ET

This is the perfect example of a game in which you wanted to bet as soon as oddsmakers opened the market. This game opened T 225 and has since been steamed up to where it currently sits at 229. It's still not high enough as my model makes this game 232 in a matchup between two teams who aren't known for their defense prowess to say the least.

The offenses are the star of this show, and we'll get to see a game with 48 minutes of action in which Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving will be on the floor at all times for the Brooklyn Nets. They've played just eight total games together and have been on the court for 5.8 percent of the Nets’ regular-season minutes. Still, the Nets are first in Offensive Rating, scoring a whopping 119.4 points per 100 possessions this season in their non garbage time minutes according to Cleaning the Glass.

They have by far the most efficient offense in NBA history, and they'll face a Boston Celtics team in which they put up an Offensive Rating of 119.7 in three games this season, despite not having the big three for all of them.

The Celtics have already taken a step back defensively this season as they're 12th in Defensive Rating (112.6), the worst we've seen from the Celtics since Brad Stevens' first season as head coach. The Celtics are 22nd in opponent  field goal percentage at the rim (65.3%), 22nd in opponent midrange percentage (43.0%) and 20th in opponent three-point percentage (37.6%). No matter how you slice it, the Nets are scoring at will against this team.

Unfortunately, they'll be without All-Star Jaylen Brown who is one of their better defenders. This should impact them on the offensive end of the floor as well, however, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker should keep this team afloat. It won't be enough to compete with Brooklyn's firepower, but they will get theirs against a Nets defense which is allowing 113.7 points per 100 possessions, 21st among NBA teams. The Nets defensive struggles are well documented by myself and I'll be glad to capitalize on it. I'll take the over 229 and would bet this up to 231.

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Portland Trailblazers at Denver Nuggets

Over 226.5
Saturday @ 10:35 PM ET

My model makes this game 231 with the market currently sitting at 226. Although this total is dropping, probably due to it being the playoffs and teams playing at an average of 2.34 possessions less than the regular season, I don't believe this is the spot to take the under.

The over is in play with a Blazers offense that is second in Offensive Rating, scoring 119.1 points per 100 possessions in their non garbage time minutes according to Cleaning the Glass. The Nuggets are missing Jamal Murray to a torn ACL as well as Will Barton and PJ Dozier to hamstring injuries. They have little hope of defending the three-guard combination of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Norman Powell who was a worthy trade deadline addition providing them another ball handler who can make plays, shoot and and score. Nevertheless, I'm expecting the Blazers to score at will in this matchup.

The Nuggets are 24th in opponent three-point frequency (38.5%), facing a Blazers team that launches threes at will, shooting a whopping 41.8% of their attempts from behind the arc, second among NBA teams. They’re also making the fifth highest percentage of threes as well (39.2%), so although Facundo Campazzo plays with a lot of effort and energy, the Nuggets will have their hands full defensively.

Although the Nuggets are missing Murray, Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. have been downright dominant, leading this team to NBA's 10th-ranked offense. The Blazers are 23rd in opponent field goal frequency at the rim (35.4%), so it's clear this team doesn't have much of a chance at stopping Jokic. Porter has averaged 23.5 points per game on 56% shooting since Murray went down and with the Blazers lacking wings to stop him, I'm expecting a big scoring output from him as well. I think this total is too low, so I'll play the over 226.5.

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Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns

Phoenix Suns -2.5 & Over 212.5
Sunday @ 3:35 p.m. ET

I'm holding futures on the Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA title at +550, but the Phoenix Suns are being disrespected here, particularly given their track record of being dominant against elite teams. The Suns are 27-9 at home and 27-11 against teams above .500.

Unfortunately we can't take anything from their two wins over the Lakers this season as LeBron James played in just one of those games, and James and Anthony Davis didn't play in their second win which came on March 21st.

Despite the championship pedigree of the Lakers, they are vulnerable with the recent returns of James and Davis and yet this number has still been pounded down from the opener of -3 to 2.5. My numbers make this game Suns -2.63, so I understand it but it's clear that this isn't the Lakers team we've seen at the start of the season given their performance against the Warriors in the play-in game. Unlike the Warriors, this Suns team isn't inept offensively outside of their star in Steph Curry.

The Suns are sixth in Offensive Rating, scoring a whopping 117.7 points per 100 possessions this season in their non garbage time minutes according to Cleaning the Glass. This team is scoring efficiently from every area of the floor,  including the rim where they're shooting 67.4% (7th), the three-point line where they're shooting 38.3% (7th) and the midrange where they're shooting 49.1%, which is first among NBA teams.

With Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges all above the 93rd percentile in midrange shooting accuracy, the tough shots that opposing teams want to give up are solid shots for this team. The Lakers do a solid job at defending the midrange, but they are middle of the pack in terms of frequency, so those shots will be available for them.

You do have to be slightly concerned for the continuity on this Lakers team given how much time their stars have missed in addition to Drummond being added to the lineup. Take a look at this.

Wow. I missed this live, but Schröder is literally trying to explain to Drummond mid-play where he should be rotating.

Drummond leaves Looney open under the rim as he receives the direction, which continues after the play as LeBron starts looking visibly frustrated. Timeout.

— Cranjis McBasketball (@Tim_NBA) May 20, 2021

The Lakers should be fine defensively, however, it's their offense which is the real cause for concern. This is a team which struggles to shoot the three, ranking 20th in three-point shooting percentage (35.7%). They're 24th in midrange shooting percentage (40.2%) while making their living in the paint.

This is actually an area where the Lakers should thrive as the Suns are 24th in opponent field goal percentage at the rim (65.5%).  With the Suns defense slipping over the second half of the season, going from a defense which was third in defensive rating, allowing just 108.2 points per 100 possessions to a team that’s 21st in Defensive Rating,  giving up 112.5 points per 100 possessions since the All Star Break, you have to wonder if the Lakers offensive concerns aren't that much of an issue in this matchup.

Of course that depends on if James is truly healthy and has found a rhythm since his return. Is playoff James here or will we see the Lakers team that struggled to score against the Warriors. The Lakers' comeback against the Warriors was fueled by turnovers which led to 18 Laker points. Unlike the Warriors, the Suns don't turn the ball over with elite point guard play from Chris Paul. They're just fourth in turnover rate, turning over the ball on 12.7% of their possessions.

Nevertheless this feels like a game where both offenses come out to play, and with my model making this game 217, I think 212.5 is priced too low. I see this as a game where the better offense will win before we see an adjustment for Game 2. I'll back the Suns to catch the Lakers out of sorts in the first game of the playoffs in a higher scoring game before coming back on the Lakers to win the series at a better price later.

Memphis Grizzlies at Utah Jazz

Utah Jazz -8.5
Sunday @ 9:35 p.m. ET

This is a pretty easy decision for me. We have a rested Utah Jazz team taking on a Memphis Grizzlies team who just played two tough play-in games against the San Antonio Spurs at home and Golden State Warriors on the road. Now the Grizzlies have to travel to Utah to take on one of the best teams in the league and a team with one of the best homecourt advantages in the four major sports. In addition the Jazz are just the superior team and have a counter for everything the Grizzles would like to do.

The Grizzlies thrive off midrange jump shots and floats where they're fourth in frequency, shooting 36.7% of their attempts and making 43.6%. The Jazz are fifth in opponent field goal percentage from the midrange (40.8%). The Jazz are first in Defensive Rating (107.5), so this Grizzlies team which is just 16th in Offensive Rating (112.2) is overmatched here.

Dealing with Rudy Gobert in the paint won't be easy and may come as a shock to the system after playing the Spurs and Warriors who both didn't have an All-Star caliber center who's on his way to winning Defensive Player of the Year.

Not only do the Jazz have a top tier defense, but they're third in Offensive Rating, scoring 118.7 points per 100 possessions in their non garbage time minutes. Unlike the Warriors, the Jazz aren't just built around one singular star in Steph Curry. The whole team can bomb from the outside as they're making a league-leading 17 threes per game.

Donovan Mitchell is the team's leading scorer at 26.4 points a game and has missed the past 16 games. The Jazz haven't skipped a beat, holding the team's top Net Rating (8.3), while ranking ninth in Offensive Rating (115.4) and maintaining the league's top Defensive Rating (107.1). With a healthy Mitchell, Mike Conley, the Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert and a top-five offense and defense, this team is primed to make a deep playoff run and return with a vengeance after blowing a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets in the bubble last year. It starts here with them taking the Grizzlies into the deep waters and drowning them. Lay the 8.5 points.

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