You had to go into these NBA playoffs with the possibility that some of the top teams on the ladder were going to have some momentum upset by the hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
When we talk about the Western Conference, an example of that may turn out to be the Los Angeles Lakers, listed as a +325 choice to win the crown in the NBA futures odds at BetOnline Sportsbook.
The Lakers were in a groove with LeBron James and Anthony Davis as a slam-bang duo, but you knew that already. As you travel down the road through the playoffs, however, it becomes a burden if you are lacking in some department. Yes, the Lakers added JR Smith and Dion Waiters to their backcourt, but having to play without the likes of Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo produces a negative that outweighs any positives.
Teams need defenders, particularly people who can get out to the perimeter. Bradley and Rondo were guys capable of that. And against highly productive backcourts, there is liability. However, at the same time it must be mentioned that the Lakers held the Portland duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum well below their season average in the first two games of the series.
I’d expect that as they progress, for as far as they go, LeBron will assume more and more of the scoring burden. Whether that makes things rougher or easier for an opponent to defend is something that remains to be seen.
A lot of people in the media have talked about the Los Angeles Clippers (+240 to go all the way) as if they were a horse that was staying just behind the front-runner, pacing themselves for a huge run down the home stretch. And that is exactly what may happen. Doc Rivers’ team seems to have all the ingredients – dynamic offensive people in the starting lineup (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George); renowned defensive stoppers (those two guys plus Patrick Beverley); a center (Ivica Zubac) who concentrates on rebounding and blocking shots; and extraordinary offensive firepower off the bench, which can give them an edge over just about anyone’s second unit.
The West is very competitive. Who else might have a chance? Here are some bullet points:
* Denver Nuggets (+6600): If they win it, chalk it up as a triumph for going against the grain, with a BIG lineup. Bol Bol, where are you?
* Oklahoma City Thunder (+20000): Tight, dynamic, well-coached and lots of comeback wins (16 when trailing after three quarters). Also the NBA’s best against the pointspread; don’t forget that. But they’ll need quite a comeback now, won’t they?
* Houston Rockets (+900): Two superstars, and lots of analytics, but ultimately may prove TOO small be vault themselves over the top.
* Utah Jazz (+5000): Donovan Mitchell has picked up the slack, as promised.
* Dallas Mavericks (+5000): We all know how great Luka Doncic is, but they don’t have enough players.
* Portland Trail Blazers (+5000): They’re a tougher matchup for the Lakers than Memphis would have been, but the metrics don’t look sensational.
The Milwaukee Bucks (+325 to win the title at BetOnline) created some doubts in the minds of their supporters last year when they blew a 2-0 lead against Toronto in last year’s East finals. Was their Game 1 loss to Orlando just a hiccup? Or perhaps a harbinger of things to come?
The Achilles heel of the Bucks is their defensive scheme, where they appear to bank on the proposition that their opponents won’t make enough three-pointers to really make a difference. Lord knows they allow them to take enough (more than any other NBA team).
Still, they’re tough inside the arc, and not a lot of teams can keep up with their tempo. Plus, if you are of the belief that the team with the best player has a leg up on the others, you’ll like this Milwaukee crew and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who knows how to beat opponents every way imaginable.
The Toronto Raptors (+700 to win it all) have looked like team that has had everything moving in the right direction. And we may suggest, even quietly so, as the L.A. teams get a lot of attention and the Bucks, of course, have been the #1 team in the East much of the campaign.
But who would have thought at the season’s outset that the Raptors would have been able to sustain the loss of an MVP-level player (Kawhi Leonard), without major personnel changes, and be a legitimate contender for a championship repeat?
Let’s concede that any team aspiring to win this thing needs to be proficient on the defensive end. Well, not only have the Raptors had the best Defensive Rating of any team in the bubble, they have managed to stay near the top of the NBA on the stop end without – again – Leonard, who is arguably the best defender at his position. It helps when Fred VanVleet can make 17 of his first 31 triples.
These are good omens for this team. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if they were one of the last two teams left in the bubble.
Let’s look at the others:
* Boston Celtics (+1000): Can’t count them out because we’ve seen the way Brad Stevens has surprised before in the playoffs. The sense here is that they won’t be able to get it done without elite big people.
* Philadelphia 76ers (+40000): They didn’t get the chance to implement their lineup tweak, with Ben Simmons injured. Will they get the opportunity next season?
* Miami Heat (+2500): Erik Spoelstra has put together a nice ensemble, but they are probably one player away. Those benchings (Kendrick Nunn, Meyers Leonard) were strange.
* Indiana Pacers (+30000): Are they more cohesive with Victor Oladipo, or without him? Tough to tell, really.
* Orlando Magic (+50000): Even one win over Milwaukee is a major accomplishment.
* Brooklyn Nets (+100000): Purely a “wait ’til next year” scenario. Fortunately the off-season won’t be long.
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