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NBA Playoff Expert Picks: Our Staff’s Favorite First Round Series Bets

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USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Paul George (13), Donovan Mitchell (45), D’Angelo Russell (1).

The NBA Playoffs are finally here and there’s so much intrigue around a bunch of the first round matchups. In the West we’ve got Russell Westbrook vs. Damian Lillard and James Harden vs. Donovan Mitchell.

In the East, the scrappy Brooklyn Nets led by D’Angelo Russell face the Philadelphia 76ers, potentially without star center Joel Embiid.

So which of these teams is worth a bet? Our NBA crew breaks it all down.

Justin Phan: Thunder -140 vs. Trail Blazers

CAN’T PLAY KANTER. Billy Donovan knows, and Steven Adams vs. Enes Kanter will be the Thunder’s biggest edge in this matchup. In the 64 combined possessions that Kanter guarded Adams this season, the Thunder scored 89 points. That’s an absurd 1.39 points per possession (for reference, the Warriors lead the league at 1.15).

There’s a reason that Oklahoma City swept the season series 4-0 — Portland’s strengths play directly into OKC’s. Damian Lillard thrives in the pick-and-roll, and the Thunder rank second in defending the ball-handler on such play types. Paul George and Russell Westbrook create havoc clogging up and jumping passing lanes, and they’ve got another premier defender in Terrance Ferguson, who’s held CJ McCollum to 37.1% shooting and just 37 points in 171 possessions this season.

Paul George’s shoulder is a concern, but he’s managed it and played through the soreness for some time now. The Blazers have equally pressing concerns, namely with McCollum. He’s struggled mightily in his two games back from a knee injury (30.8% FG, 18.2% 3PT) and is still building up to a full minutes workload.

If the Thunder are able to contain Lillard and will see a shell of McCollum, it’s tough to see how the Blazers will muster up enough offense to win this series. Jusuf Nurkic’s absence looms large — he does so many things well that Portland needs to crack this aggressive OKC defense, from setting hard screens to serving as a playmaking valve for Lillard.

Ken Barkley: Jazz +270 vs. Rockets

This one’s actually pretty easy for me, in terms of value. I think the Rockets win in seven, but I can always evaluate where we are at that point and decide if I want out (or secure a small profit depending on the market).

Utah had a better win-expectancy over the course of the season, and was the best team in the NBA down the stretch. They are better than Houston. Will that manifest itself in a win without homecourt? I don’t know. But Houston isn’t the same team as last year (despite the fact that they’re being lined like they are).

Their perimeter defense is worse without Trevor Ariza (and Luc Mbah a Moute), Chris Paul is less dominant, and Clint Capela was a disaster in basically every game against Utah in the season series. It’s not often in the NBA you can get the better team at +270, but that’s what is happening here. I just have to hope they can overcome the other team’s home-court advantage.

Matt LaMarca: Jazz +270 vs. Rockets

I’m with Ken on this one. The Rockets have been fantastic since the All-Star break, leading all teams with a Net Rating of +10.7 points per 100 possessions. But second place? That would be the Utah Jazz at +9.5.

The Jazz should also benefit from the ability to play a tighter core during the postseason. They’ve been fantastic with their core players on the court all season. Their starting lineup of Ricky Rubio-Donovan Mitchell-Joe Ingles-Derrick Favors-Rudy Gobert has posted a Net Rating of +5.1, and replacing Favors with Jae Crowder increases the Net Rating to +12.0. That’s the third best mark among all five-man combinations that have played at least 300 minutes.

The Jazz also did as good a job as anyone at slowing down Harden during the regular season. Rubio served as his primary defender on 123 possessions, and he held Harden to -14.9 points per 100 possessions below his season average. Royce O’Neal was even better over 66 possessions, limiting Harden to just 19 total points. Unsurprisingly, the Rockets offense suffered mightily in those situations.

The Jazz have been one of the most underrated teams in basketball all season — only the Bucks, Warriors, and Raptors have been better in terms of Net Rating — and they don’t deserve to be this big of a dog.

Wob: Nuggets -230 Series vs. Spurs

Denver tailspinning before the playoffs started was a blessing in disguise for bettors. Nobody trusts them after the way they’ve played these past couple weeks. Nooooobody. They finished 20th in the league in points scored per game but sixth in efficiency. That is not a typo.

They have completely pivoted their style to mudball, and they are damn good at it. Playoffs = mudball, but for four full quarters. They are the No. 2 seed for a reason and they are without a doubt the deepest team in the conference. I know that doesn’t carry the same weight in the playoffs that it did throughout the year, but options are always a great problem to have.

They can contain Aldridge with Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee, sparing Nikola Jokic the burden of having to actually try on defense for once. I know it feels different, but I still don’t trust DeMar DeRozan in the playoffs.

It’s going to be open season for Blue Arrow archery with Patty Mills on Jamal Murray. That Denver crowd is the army of orcs waiting outside of Helm’s Deep waiting to charge. Buy low while you still can.

Travis Reed: Pacers +450 vs. Celtics

Let me start by saying I don’t expect the Pacers to win this series, but this price is too good to pass up. The Celtics seem to still be priced as one of the better teams in the league even though nothing they have shown throughout the season backs up that assessment.

On paper, this team should be much better, but something is still amiss. Maybe it’s Kyrie Irving having one foot out the door to his free agency destination or that the younger players just didn’t progress like many projected they would.

Also don’t forget that bench rotations shrink in the playoffs and the Celtics will be without their defensive nuisance Marcus Smart for the entire series. I think the Pacers win this series around 25% of the time and would take any price +400 or better.

Evan Abrams: Nets (+600) over Sixers

I simply think this price is off. If the Nets and Sixers play a 100 times, I don’t think Brooklyn would win 50 or more, but I think based on what we’ve seen from the Nets this season, especially against Philly, they have a fighters chance. The Nets and Sixers split their season series 2-2, with Brooklyn actually outscoring the Sixers 121 to 117.8 on average.

This season, the Nets scored 115.4 points per 100 possessions against the Sixers, the fourth-highest of any 76ers opponent across the league, including an eFG% of 56% against the Sixers, third-highest of any opponent.

The biggest question mark in the series is the status of Joel Embiid. Whether he plays every single game or sits, the Nets are actually well equipped to dealing with his presence. He played in all four games against the Nets, averaged over 30 minutes per game, 30 PPG and shot 60% from the field — but again, the Nets won two games and played well even with Embiid’s top performance.

In the Nets’ four games against the Sixers this season they are averaging 57 points in the paint, the sixth-highest mark among all 76ers opponents and second-highest among teams to face Philly four times this year. Again, it is worth repeating, the Nets did that paint damage with a ton of Embiid to deal with, too.

The Nets will battle the Sixers hard if Embiid plays and if Embiid misses games and can’t play for an extended period, they have a real shot to give Philly trouble. I like the Nets at this price.

Matt Moore: Rockets in 5 (+300) over Jazz

Utah is tough. But after pouring over the metrics and the tape, I can’t find much reason to think the Jazz can get this to seven games, and I’m getting 3-1 if they hand them a gentleman’s sweep. Houston takes two at home, breaks their back in Game 3, gives them Game 4 to be polite, and polishes it off at home.

The biggest differential here is that Houston is a radically different team than they were to start the season. Too much analysis is hinging on the idea that Houston is who the season-long metrics say they were. When they got Clint Capela and Chris Paul back in the rotation alongside Austin Rivers and Danuel House, they straight up killed teams on both ends of the floor.

As I wrote in our preview, Gobert just has too many issues with containing space vs. Houston. The Rockets slammed them when they last played on Feb. 2, and while I don’t pay focus on regular season results, the way the matchups play out does matter to me. Gobert was barely playable in the regular season despite never seeing this optimized version of Houston.

Matt Moore: Nets (+600) over Sixers

Like with Travis and the Pacers, I also don’t expect the Nets to knock off Philly, but the number’s too good. Shooting is the one equalizer in the NBA playoffs and the Nets are better volume shooters than the Sixers.

Brooklyn was top-five in 3-point makes per 100 possessions and 8th in spot-up points per game. The Sixers were 19th in 3-point makes per 100 possessions and 19th in spot-up points per game. The big factor here is Joel Embiid’s injury status.

On Wednesday, Brett Brown said he didn’t know Embiid’s status and an update would be forthcoming. We still don’t have it when I’m writing this. If Embiid is out for any length, the Sixers are in big trouble because the Nets rolled over them in the minutes he was not on the floor. He dictates this matchup and without him, the Nets’ chances go way-way up.

Factoring his injury and the possibility of tactical adjustments like doubles and running him off with pace, I want to get the Nets at this number.

Chris Raybon: Thunder -165 Over Trail Blazers

If you’re willing to lay money on a favorite, the Thunder, in my humble opinion, should be your go-to. Even though Kanter was a double-double machine down the stretch, he’s no Jusuf Nurkic. Nurk ranked seventh-best of 72 qualifying centers in Defensive Real Plus-Minus during the regular season (+3.38). Kanter? Second-to-last (-1.46).

It’s no wonder the Blazers were 12.9 points better with Big Nurk on the floor but 1.4 points worse with Can’t Play Kanter on. You’re getting the shortest price of all favorites on the market because the Thunder are the lower seed and thus have to steal at least one on the road, but they’re better equipped to do so than Portland is to return the favor.

OKC is one of seven teams with a Net Rating of at least +2.0 on the road, while Portland posted a painfully average +0.1 (and most of that came with Nurk still in the lineup).

Bryan Mears: Thunder -165 Over Trail Blazers

I wrote my long thoughts on this series here, but this is, in my opinion, the most mispriced series on the board. With Jusuf Nurkic off the court, this team has been much worse — like 12.0 points per 100 possessions worse. That’s massive.

They’ve gone 7-2 without him so far, which is making people think they’re fine, but literally all of those wins came against non-playoff teams or playoff teams resting starters. It’s definitely not a representative sample.

Further, the Blazers just do not match up well against the Thunder. OKC has athletes to throw at the Portland guards, and Steven Adams should dominate inside. I’ll bet -165 without thinking twice.

Chris Raybon Spurs +225 over Nuggets

I hate to disagree with my guy Wob, but in no way of ways, shape of shapes, or form of forms do I think the Nuggets should be getting 2-to-1 odds to knock off a Gregg Popovich-coached team that’s still more playoff-battle-tested even without Kawhi Leonard.

Save for Jamal Murray, everyone on Denver’s confidence seems to come and go at will — HBO and Netflix already have more than enough material for dual docuseries on Paul Millsap’s disappearance in away games. And is any superstar in the West more likely to disappear at the wrong time — be it from foul trouble, ejection, or otherwise — than Nikola Jokic?

Yes, Michael Malone has come a long way as a coach, but you still best believe Pop will find a plethora of ways to put Malone through the sideline blender.

The Nuggets’ saving grace is their dominant play on their home floor (34-7, +10.6 Net Rating), and even though San Antonio has been even shakier on the road (16-25, -3.6) than Denver (20-21, -2.4), I’m worried about how the Nuggets will handle the inevitable adversity that comes with postseason basketball — especially if it involves a slip-up at home.

It feels to me like the Spurs still have another gear to hit or switch to flip while the Nuggets spent all season going hard to prove that they belong. I think Denver’s series price should be more like OKC’s and less like Houston’s.

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