NBA Playoff Series Odds & Betting Previews: Finding Value in 76ers vs. Heat & Mavericks vs. Suns
Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Bam Adebayo #13 of the Miami Heat.
We’re down to eight teams now with Round 2 of the NBA Playoffs already underway.
The Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors are already ahead in their series, so before the next two games tip-off, we should address the matchups and what they’ll mean for how these series will play out.
Let’s dive in.
Philadelphia 76ers vs. Miami Heat
Series Odds: Heat (-350) | 76ers (+260)
One Big Thing: The Impact (Or Lack Thereof) of Joel Embiid
A potentially great series suffered a major twist when Joel Embiid was diagnosed with a facial fracture and a concussion after taking an elbow from Pascal Siakam in Game 6 (with four minutes left and the Sixers up 29).
Embiid is out indefinitely, but there are reports that it’s possible he returns for Game 3 in Philadelphia or soon after.
Embiid had a similar issue in 2018 vs. the Heat in the first-round and wore a mask, but it bothered him to the point of him eventually wanting to ditch it.
That’s something to monitor if he returns in this series.
Embiid coming back for the home games helps here since there won’t be as much pressure to win Games 1 and 2 without him. Players often choose to play through facial injuries given that it won’t risk future injury to limit career earnings; it just hurts like hell.
Unfortunately, the matchup with him is equally tough.
The Sixers wobbled but did not collapse vs. the Toronto Raptors. After losing two straight, they bucked up on the road and won in Game 6. They looked dominant for four games and meek in two. With James Harden playing better, Embiid dominating inside, and Tyrese Maxey emerging as a third star, maybe the Raptors series presents the moment the Sixers became a serious contender.
That’s the narrative going into this series. All the attention is on the Sixers. Embiid, MVP candidate. Harden, former MVP, superstar. Doc Rivers. Daryl Morey. The Sixers are a juicy story from so many angles.
This series is not about the Sixers.
It’s about the Heat.
Most Important Advantage: Heat Defense vs. 76ers Offense
The Heat finished as the No. 1 seed, with better Adjust Net and Defensive Ratings and a comparable Offensive Rating compared to Philadelphia (12th to the 76ers’ 11th).
The coaching edge is considerable in this matchup. Eric Spoelstra has been one of the best coaches in the NBA over the past 15 years. He’s benefitted from talented teams, but as an example, Spoelstra is 13-1 in series where he opened Game 1 as a home favorite, with the lone loss the 2011 Finals vs. the Mavericks.
Tactically, there’s a coaching edge here, as well. Miami’s defense is top-tier and built well to combat the Sixers’ strength. The Heat primarily operate in switch coverage in pick and roll with long and active defenders, which will help against both Harden and Maxey. The counterpoint there is obviously Embiid battling smaller players on the switch.
But the Sixers this season had just a 46% eFG (very poor) against switching defenses with Embiid as the screener, averaging just 1.02 points per possession. Against the Heat specifically, the Sixers had a 45% eFG and averaged 0.83 points per possession.
Fun fact: Bam Adebayo is 7-3 straight-up in his career in the regular season against Embiid. The Philly big man averages 22 points in those matchups vs. his career average of 26, shoots 47% in those matchups vs. a career average of 49%, and averages 8.1 free throws per game vs. his career average of 11.1. And Adebayo has won the last five matchups.
Now, there’s a lot of context needed in this situation. No Harden, drastically different team, Embiid is much better. It’s just to note the historical results.
So let’s get a little more specific to this season.
In limited matchups, Embiid has a 37% eFG (really horrible) vs. Dewayne Dedmon in usage matchups, where Embiid had the ball and either shot, turned it over, passed for an assist, or was fouled. That’s not that bad, though, compared to the 17% he averaged vs. Adebayo.
In the last three seasons, Embiid is 20-of-47 (42.6%) with Dedmon and Adebayo contesting the shot. He drew a shooting foul on just four of those shots.
Embiid is going to score, but this is about how efficient he will be. And if Miami can drag down his efficiency, it helps with containing the rest of the offense.
Meanwhile, holistically, the Heat use zone the fourth most of any team in the league this season. The Sixers were 27th vs. zone defense offensively this season. After the Harden trade, they were still 27th vs. zone defense.
There’s other worrisome signs. Over the last three seasons, Harden averages the fourth-most turnovers per 100 matchups when faced with Jimmy Butler. The Heat overall in that span have held Harden to the sixth-fewest shots per matchup.
The Heat switch a lot in pick and roll, that’s their base coverage. Remember that great series that Maxey had to start vs. the Raptors? The Sixers have generated just a 44% eFG% with him trying to create vs. switches.
Miami’s defense has a big edge here.
The challenge, of course, will be about Miami’s offense.
Most Important Weakness: Heat Offense
Miami has injury issues of their own.
Kyle Lowry is out for Game 1 with a hamstring strain and there’s no telling when he’ll return. Jimmy Butler missed Game 5 against the Atlanta Hawks with knee inflammation. Tyler Herro is battling a respiratory infection, Max Strus has a hamstring strain and PJ Tucker has a calf strain.
Miami’s half-court offense was pedestrian in the first round, despite playing a very soft Hawks defense. The Heat ranked 11th in the regular season, but among all teams in losses they were 22nd in half-court offense. That’s the number that explains why it feels like when they don’t play well the offense dies.
Now, on the other hand, the Raptors, without Scottie Barnes for two games and Fred VanVleet for half the series, had the sixth-best half-court offense in the first round vs. Philadelphia, a sign that there’s a weakness for the Heat to exploit.
The Sixers’ defensive options without Embiid are limited. Paul Reed got most of the backup minutes vs. the Raptors. Rivers said in the regular season that he’d use Reed vs. smaller lineups and DeAndre Jordan vs. larger ones. Does Adebayo count as a larger center at 6-foot-9? Does Dedmon?
One issue is that by going to Reed, you’re opting to play a more switchable lineup, but Reed hasn’t switched much and has been bad at it. He switched a total of 20 times in the regular season, giving up 1.2 points per possession and allowing a 56% eFG%. In the playoffs against the Raptors, he switched 19 times, giving up 1.7 points per possession (which is hotter than the sun) and a 75% eFG%.
Reed isn’t quite quick enough to hang with ball handlers and keep them from their spot. Gary Trent Jr. gets to his spot pretty easily here:
Jordan is a worse option. He had great numbers vs. the Heat in the regular season in terms of on-court impact, but there were plays like this off switch that make you afraid of how many 3s the Sixers will give up to a team that shoots a ton of them:
There are X-factors who could help the Sixers here: a big Tobias Harris series, a cold spell from Herro with Lowry out. Miami is bottom-10 in points allowed off turnovers per 100 possessions so if the Sixers can apply on-ball pressure, that can negate some of it.
But when I look at this matchup, it’s not a good one for the Sixers, and that’s before Embiid’s absence.
Bet: Heat -1.5 win spread (-132, BetRivers)
Dallas Mavericks vs. Phoenix Suns
Series odds: Suns (-300) | Mavericks (+240)
One Big Thing: Is Phoenix Versatile Enough?
Last year, the Suns had two distinct modes.
Think of it like a Transformer. Phoenix had one mode, its baseline, which was Deandre Ayton at center, playing drop coverage in pick and roll using that gravity from Ayton to create room, and the other weapons surrounding Chris Paul and Devin Booker.
Then they had the small-ball configuration, where Dario Saric would play small-ball five and the Suns could switch-all and play five-out.
This season, with Saric out for the season, James Jones and the Suns front office elected to go full on into what they do well. They added JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo so that Paul would always have a roll weapon.
The cost, of course, is you lose that other configuration, and that matters in matchups specifically like this.
Since the Mavericks traded Kristaps Porzingis, they have essentially morphed into a B-grade Harden Rockets. It’s a Luka Doncic-heliocentric five-out switch-all team.
The Suns have not seen this configuration. All three matchups were before the trade. Two of the matchups were without Doncic, and in the one Doncic played, Ayton did not play.
What’s interesting, however, is how much success the Suns have had with playing their base drop coverage vs. Doncic.
Most Important Advantage: Suns Defending Doncic Pick-and-Rolls
Doncic shoots 43.9% in pick and roll as the ball-handler on non-passing possessions, averaging 1.07 points per possessions, 63rd percentile. Vs. the Suns the last two seasons, just when playing drop, Doncic has scored 21 points on 26 possessions and just .81 points per possession, shooting just 38.5% (eFG%).
A big component in this is that Doncic does not pop off the screen and rise and fire. He’s not Paul or Damian Lillard. He likes to keep his dribble into getting space for a step back. Against a lot of teams, this works great because their guards can’t get over and the bigs will drop way back.
But Biyombo steps up high here and that buys time for Mikal Bridges to get over the screen and recover, but Doncic shoots anyway.
This is from last season with Ayton defending. One of the big advantages of drop coverage is that you can stay home on shooters. Look at the top and bottom of the screen to see how the Suns help defenders don’t have to help down.
Doncic hits a tough shot — he’s going to do that, he’s Luka Doncic — but you’ll take tough twos vs. open threes like the Jazz habitually gave up.
But that was the regular season, and again, no big pop here from Max Kleber to the 3-point line.
If the Suns, however, need an alternative, they can switch with Ayton. Doncic has shot worse (34.4% eFG%) and scored worse .71 points per possession vs. the Suns switch than even vs. drop. As Ayton gets older and slower, this isn’t going to be feasible but for now while he’s young and spry, he can have possessions like this:
The Jazz had a slow-footed big man who was better than advertised on switches but who really struggled to defend in space, and more importantly had nothing but turnstiles on the perimeter. The Suns have Bridges, Booker, Jae Crowder and Paul.
Bridges will get the primary assignment on Doncic. He has the fifth-most total matchups with Doncic over the past two seasons. In those matchups, Doncic still has an eFG% of 53.8% which is 53rd percentile vs. all matchups, but he shoots less often and has fewer assists in those matchups compared to all others as well.
I wouldn’t say the Suns are perfectly built to handle Doncic, because I’m not sure such a perfect construct exists. What does seem apparent is that the Suns are well built to take away Doncic’s playmaking and make things tough on him.
Most Important Weakness: The Math Game
Dallas led the first round with 17 made 3-pointers per 100 possessions. The Suns were second lowest in the first-round with just 9.2 per 100 possessions. In the regular season, the Mavs after the Porzingis trade averaged 14.8 per 11, fourth most in the NBA, and the Suns averaged 12.2, 18th-most in the league.
This season, when opponents hit 15 or more 3-pointers, the Suns were 3-10 ATS, and just 5-8 straight-up.
Notably, these were the two best teams in the regular season at limiting 3-pointers, and they’ve been the two best in the playoffs so far.
This gets back to some of the Doncic discussion, where the question of difficult shots vs. working for easier ones matter. If the Mavericks are able to break down the very good Suns defense to open up 3-point shooters, they can counter the Suns’ defense with point efficiency vs. shot efficiency. (Twos vs. threes.)
In the regular season, Dallas allowed the fifth highest mid-range rate, and held opponents to their sixth-lowest percentage. This of course is a challenge vs. Booker and Paul, two of the best in the mid-range.
Ultimately, this is a question of whether you think the Mavs win over the Jazz was more about Utah or Dallas. The Mavericks had a lot of guys step up and play well in that series, specifically when Doncic was out. The team is different when Doncic is there, and I’m not sure that plays into their strengths vs. Phoenix.
Bet: Suns -1.5 Wins (-135, BetMGM)