(3) 76ers vs (6) Nets +8.5, 215.5
Series price: 76ers -900, Nets +640
Most people have this as an easy sweep and they’re not that far off but when you look up and down the Nets roster and realize they have 4 guys who started in the Western Conference Finals in the last 2 years plus a bench of Seth Curry, Royce O’Neale and Joe Harris this team has a lot more talent than people will give them credit for and shooters all over the court. Now this is still Sixers in 5 and Joel Embiid is going to dominate, but when you’re getting 8.5 points and are playing a Doc Rivers coached team it would be foolish to just dismiss the underdog and expect every game to be a blowout. The Nets will have 4 guys on the court at all times who can hit the three consistently and in today’s NBA if you have 3-4 guys hitting from three efficiently that’s how you end up with some final scores that go against expectations. The Nets starting 5 will roll out Mikal Bridges (26.1 ppg with the Nets), Cam Johnson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Nic Claxton and every guy off their bench with the exception of big man Da’Ron Sharpe can shoot the three. This Nets team was assembled in early February for the most part and everything you hear from Jacque Vaughn is how much they’ve grown together in the last 2 months and figured out what style of defense is best for them. Royce O’Neale and Mikal Bridges are two of the best wing defenders in the NBA and won’t give up anything easy vs Harden or Maxey. The Nets can give PJ Tucker space on offense unless he gets hot from the corner and until he does you have to imagine Vaughn will throw double teams at Embiid off of PJ Tucker’s man. Again, you won’t stop Embiid but if you can get the ball out of his hands a few extra times and have Royce O’Neale or Bridges slow down Harden then that opens the door to cover 8.5 once or twice in Philly. The other interesting element for Game 1 is Jacque Vaughn is able to throw some schemes out that the Sixers probably haven’t seen from the Nets before with them implementing some new things since February. The Nets played the Sixers in Brooklyn on February 11th right after the team was put together and it was a 101-98 Sixers win. It will obviously be a much different environment in Philadelphia in the playoffs but when this line was set oddsmakers expected hardly anyone to want to bet Brooklyn and when you have a game like that the line tends to be inflated a little with very few people mentioning it. Philly will have their blowout game at some point in this series and take care of business, but for Game 1 the Nets at +8.5 with a lot that they can throw on offense that’s new and playing with literally no pressure they can cover 8.5 on the road. For props – Harden’s gone Under 20.5 points in 7 of the last 9 games and Maxey’s gone Over 3.5 rebounds in 7 of the last 8 and there will be plenty of long rebounds in this series with how many threes Brooklyn will shoot.
(4) Cavs -5.5 vs (5) Knicks, 214.5
Series price: Cavs -220, Knicks +190
A lot will be made about how the Knicks won the season series 3-1 over the Cavs and won in Cleveland a few weeks without Julius Randle. The fact of the matter is that Cleveland was without key guys in that game as well – Jarrett Allen and Isaac Okoro – both key pieces for the Cavs defense and a playoff series is going to have a very different atmosphere than a few of those midseason games. That said, the Knicks are good enough to win a few games in this series and depending on how many times you get their ‘A’ game can win this series. The big question to start this series is when Julius Randle will play after spraining his ankle March 29th. He participated in parts of practice Tuesday and Wednesday this week but he hasn’t been cleared for contact drills yet. Best case scenario is being cleared for contact with 1 or 2 days to prep for this game which sets up a decent chance he doesn’t play Game 1 or goes into it needing to shake off rust. If Julius Randle doesn’t go, Obi Toppin’s minutes are going to go up. Toppin played a lot the last two weeks and shot 21-49 from three (43%) the last 7 games and scored 34 and 32 in 2 of his last 3 games. Toppin and Grimes are the two guys to target for prop Overs if Randle is out – Grimes scored more than 20 in 6 of his last 9 games and is shooting a ridiculous 43-90 from three (48%) his last 9 games. Grimes Overs are something to target regardless of Randle’s status and the books haven’t adjusted his # enough yet. These teams match up well when Randle is in and the Knicks can definitely hold their own for a game or two if they sit Randle. Donovan Mitchell and Garland vs Jalen Brunson and Quentin Grimes are two great matchups at the guard spots – Brunson and Mitchell will trade 25-30 point games a few times and Grimes has really been strong for the Knicks both defensively and from three and is in a small group of guys who can stay in front of Garland consistently. Jarrett Allen vs Mitchell Robinson is a matchup of two of the best rim protectors in the league. Evan Mobley’s size could give Randle some trouble on shots but at the same time Randle at the three point line will pull a great rim protector away from the basket and open up lanes. The Knicks would lose some defense if Obi is forced to play more and you can expect a more uptempo game with Toppin in. The benches both have depth and shooters with Quickley and Caris LeVert the lead guys for each team and veterans Ricky Rubio and Cedi Osman guards for the Cavs. How good Immanuel Quickley has been for the Knicks can’t be said enough and Josh Hart has been an incredible add for the Knicks at the deadline – defense, hustle plays – and the Knicks went 17-8 SU and ATS since adding Hart. The Knicks also went 37-22 since Thibs was on the brink of getting fired in December and switched to a 9 man rotation to save his job.
Expect a lot of back and forth in this series and for the underdog/road team to cover more times than the favorite, that’s how small of a gap there is between these teams when Randle is healthy. If he sits out a game or two the line will go up for the Knicks and there will be value on the Knicks with Obi Toppin filling in good minutes and the Knicks bench being able to play above their normal output. Donovan Mitchell vs Jalen Brunson will be high quality entertainment and their scoring should basically cancel each other out. Cavs -220 is too expensive – that implies a 69% chance the Cavs win this series (nice) – and the majority of people who have followed this Knicks team close the last few months would tell you they have more than a 31% chance in this series. As talented as the Cavs are this is a lot of their key guys’ first playoff series. All the value on the series line is on the Knicks, the Knicks should cover at least one of the first two games in Cleveland, and Quentin Grimes Overs as well as Obi Toppin Overs are the moves for props in this one.
(2) Celtics -9 vs (7) Hawks, 230
Series price: Celtics -1050, Hawks +675
Outside of Jaylen Brown getting his hand “cut on glass in a plant watering accident,” the Celtics are healthy coming into the playoffs and Rob Williams seems to be in a better position coming into this year’s playoffs than last year. Joe Mazzula Wednesday said Brown and Marcus Smart (stiff neck) should both practice before Saturday and there’s not much to worry about. Regardless, the Celtics are going to throw size at Trae Young on defense all series and be able to do what the Heat did to him last playoffs when they had PJ Tucker, only the Celtics have even more guys they can throw at him and more size. If Trae Young is able to score efficiently going through a mix of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and at times probably Grant Williams and Jayson Tatum then he deserves to take a bow in front of TD Garden also. Trae Young Under points should be a consideration a few games this series – it opened at 25.5 with the Under juiced to -120 at some books – and in 5 games in the 1st round last year he averaged 15.4 ppg, shot 18% from three, and didn’t top 25 points in any game. Now granted, this is a more talented Hawks team with more shooters and size than last year so it’s not as easy to just load up on Trae because you have to focus on Dejounte Murray and good bench players like Sadiq Bey, but the Hawks shot distribution should be spread out more than the last few years in the playoffs and the Celtics are too good of a defense to let Young beat them. A player to target for Overs is Bogdan Bogdonovic – a good playoff performer and someone who’s been outperforming his # often recently – he went Over his points total of 11.5 in 5 of his last 6 games including 14 vs the Heat in the play-in game and he doesn’t hesitate to put up threes right when he gets in (he took 10 threes in 2 different games in the last week). The Celtics should go up 2-0, win in 5, but the Hawks are definitely talented enough to cover a big number one game. If you want to lay points with the Celtics, they were a good 1st half team at home in the playoffs last year (5-2 ATS 1H vs the Bucks and Warriors). There will be lines around 1H -5.5 at home for the Cs and with NBA Finals expectations and excitement expect the Celtics to come out swinging early when they’re at home. Game 1 might be a little bit of a feeling out process especially with the Hawks being under a new system with Quin Snyder, so it might not happen right away and Game 2 with Jaylen Brown free of his plant-watering damage might be a better spot.