The long-awaited NBA postseason tips off this afternoon in the Orlando bubble. This is a league that is noted for the relative lack of drama in the early playoff rounds. In the NHL or MLB, big favorites go down routinely. Not so in pro hoops and a big reason is that—for whatever reason—homecourt advantage seems to be a much bigger deal than in hockey or major league baseball.
All of which makes the dynamic of a neutral floor with no fans more unique in the NBA than in other sports. Role players tend to be most impacted by the power of the crowd. What impact will that have on these opening-round series? I can envision three possibilities…
*Underdogs, no longer held down by rocking crowds early in a series are able to get some momentum, start believing in themselves and pull unlikely upsets.
*Favorites get off to their usual quick start. Then, momentum no longer broken by those middle games on the road, close out sweeps and five-game series wins even more efficiently than usual.
*Everything just evens out and there’s no noticeable impact.
I’m playing it safe and assuming the last of these possibilities right now, but it’s anybody’s guess and promises to be an interesting storyline that undergirds all eight first-series. And on that, let’s move into the matchups. We can break them down into three different categories
These four are the most compelling matchups…
Celtics-76ers: Ben Simmons’ injury takes some of the juice out of this, but the 76ers are still a dangerous 6-seed. Joel Embiid can control a game on both sides of the floor from down low. Tobias Harris has had a great year in the backcourt. And Celtics’ fans need no reminder of how good and versatile Al Horford is at the forward spot.
But Boston has played well in the bubble. They defend the three-point line exceptionally well. Jayson Tatum has shown he’s a money performer in big games. Between Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Heyward and Kemba Walker the Celtics have a well-balanced offense that shares the ball and any one of those four can be the star on any given night.
The battle for rebounds in this series will be a good one—with Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter, Boston is one of the NBA’s best teams at going for offensive rebounds. But the Sixers, their rebounding anchored by Embiid are one of the best at closing at defensive possessions by securing the miss.
Even if Philly can get the job down rebounding though, they lack the depth to match up with Boston over a seven-game series. There’s a reason the Celtics are a (-400) favorite to advance.
Rockets-Thunder: Three big-name guards who have something to prove when it comes to the postseason. Chris Paul leads the way for Oklahoma City and the great point guard has only made one conference finals in his career.
Thunder fans know all too well that James Harden and Russell Westbrook both made the Finals all the way back in 2012 when they were both with OKC. But the pair, now in Houston, has more of a reputation for regular season electricity than postseason excellence.
These great players will decide the series. Houston’s decision to trade Clint Capela has left them without any real inside strength. The frontcourt is not a Thunder strength, but Steven Adams is a tough veteran center. Danilo Galllinari can take the offensive pressure off of Paul and his running mate, Dennis Schroder.
Oklahoma City also plays better defense, ranking seventh in the league in efficiency, compared to Houston’s 14th. Betting markets see this as the most competitive first-round matchup and have made the Rockets a (-155) favorite. But I think the Thunder are a little more complete and well-balanced, and will pick them to win the series.
Heat-Pacers: Wake up the echoes of those Eastern Conference Finals battles in 2013 and 2014. There’s no LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Hibbert or Paul George, but Miami and Indiana are both young teams on the rise and these series promises to be every bit as good as the ones several years ago.
On paper, Indiana looks a little bit better. Domantas Sabonis, the center from Gonzaga is the most complete player on either team. The Pacers are well-coached by Nate McMillan and play really good team defense, as any team with Malcolm Brogdon in its lineup will.
But Miami is the favorite—a solid (-310) one at that. A big part of that is likely due to doubts about how much Victor Oladipo can give the Pacers. But another facet is that the Heat are really well-balanced themselves. Jimmy Butler leads the way and Bam Adebayo gives Miami their own young big man who can battle down low. When it comes to coaching, Erik Spoelstra doesn’t have to take a back seat to McMillan.
That’s why I lean Miami. But my confidence level is not as strong as the oddsmakers.
Nuggets-Jazz: If you’re looking for an electric pace and teams flying up and down the floor, the Denver-Utah series won’t be for you. Both teams are among the slowest-pace in the league. But if you’re looking for a really good competitive battle with the ultimate outcome in doubt, then this series is most definitely for you.
Denver is the 3-seed and the (-200) betting favorite, but the Nuggets are dealing with injuries. Fortunately for Denver, one of those injuries is not to Nikola Jokic, so the versatile big man who averages 20 points/10 rebounds/7 assists per game can still be the deciding factor in this series. Jamal Murray, and his 19/5/5 line is also on hand.
Utah will miss point guard Mike Conley for a couple games after he left the bubble for the birth of his son. That could be the difference in this series. The Jazz get great play from the forward spots with Rudy Gay and Donovan Mitchell. Joe Ingles provides a veteran presence in the backcourt. But Utah needs Conley to advance, so whether they stay afloat without him will tell us a lot about how this series plays out.
THE STARS COME OUT
All eyes are on the Los Angeles teams, with the Lakers and Clippers being 1-2 in the West and their prospective conference finals matchup being the big attraction of this entire postseason. The Lakers will play Portland in the first round, while the Clips pair up against Dallas.
The LA teams are going to advance without any real difficulty, but the stars from the Blazers and Mavs will have their moments. Portland’s Damian Lilliard is already one of the big stories of the bubble. Along with backcourt mate CJ McCollum, he can fill a stat sheet. And so can Dallas’ great combo of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.
The problem with both underdogs is that neither plays defense. Dallas is mediocre and Portland is flat-out awful. That’s why, neutral floor or not, no upset is coming out of either series.
Milwaukee and Toronto hold down the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference and they rank 1-2 in the league defensively. The Bucks have the game’s best player in Giannis Antetoukounmpo and perhaps its best coach in Mike Budenholzer. One man who might argue that status with Budenholzer is Toronto’s Nick Nurse. Nurse may have won an NBA title last year, but the job he has done this season without Kawhi Leonard is simply unreal.
Brooklyn plays Toronto, while Orlando matches up with Milwaukee. Both underdogs play respectable defense, but they have a different problem than their counterparts in the West. The injuries are just piling up for both. If either series makes it to a Game 6, it would be a surprise.
You take my betting guidance at your own risk, but if I’m going to offer analysis, I’ll at least put myself on record with picks. The moneyline for each series winner is in parentheses. If you wager the favorite, that’s the amount you’d need to bet in order to recoup a $100 profit. In you bet the underdog, the moneyline is the profit you get back on a $100 bet. The asterisk indicates those I would actually place money on if I were a betting man.