Though we won’t know who will be facing the top-seeded Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference (Cavaliers or Hawks) and Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference (Pelicans or Clippers) until the second set of play-in games is completed tonight, six of the eight first-round matchups for the NBA playoffs are set in stone.
Four of those best-of-seven matchups — Jazz vs. Mavericks, Timberwolves vs. Grizzlies, Raptors vs. 76ers and Nuggets vs. Warriors — tip off on Saturday, and the remaining four first-round series get underway on Sunday.
With sports betting now legal in more than 30 states across the country, the odds are better than 50% that you are located somewhere that will allow you to place an above-the-board wager or two on The Association’s always entertaining postseason. In case that sounds appealing, we reached out to Jonathan Von Tobel, a senior NBA analyst for Las Vegas-based sports betting network VSiN who serves as the host of the Hardwood Handicappers podcast, for his picks on which teams will emerge victorious from the first round. (All odds current as of Thursday afternoon via DraftKings.)
Utah Jazz (-300) vs. Dallas Mavericks (+230)
This is tough because we don’t know the status of Luka Doncic. He strained his calf in the last game of the regular season. He’s massive. Doncic is the difference between the Mavericks being favored in that series and in a game, as opposed to not. This is one of those situations where information is key and you need to wait until that info’s out to attack it. If he plays, I would like the Mavericks a lot. They would have the best player on the floor in Doncic and they now have these three-guard lineups that they can roll out with Doncic, Spencer Dinwiddie and Jalen Brunson. It’s been great for them. For the Jazz, if we look at what their weaknesses have been in the past, they don’t have good perimeter defenders. Dribble penetration and kick-outs to open shooters have killed them in the past. The Mavericks can do that in bunches, especially with Doncic out there. If he was playing, I’d have the Mavericks circled to win the series and actually be a threat in the conference as a whole.
Slam-Dunk Bet: With Doncic, I’ll go Mavericks in six. Without him, I’ll take the Jazz in six.
Minnesota Timberwolves (+260) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (-330)
Minnesota is not going to get much support, but the Timberwolves, to give them some credit, split their four games with the Grizzlies this season. Ja Morant played in all four of them so the Grizzlies were at relatively full strength. In those four games, the T-Wolves had a +9 net rating, so they played extremely well. I don’t think they’re as dead in the water as most would think in a series like this. There are so many different ways to attack betting in the NBA playoffs. I think one of the best ways to do it in a series like this would be with a series spread. So Minnesota plus 2.5 or 1.5 games. I wouldn’t take Memphis in a sweep, but I think it will be Grizzlies in six or seven if you get a really good performance from Minnesota’s offense. I think that this is going to be a much tougher-fought series than the market thinks.
Slam-Dunk Bet: Grizzlies in seven.
Denver Nuggets (+210) vs. Golden State Warriors (-250)
We don’t know if Steph Curry’s going to be available at the beginning of this series yet. That’s a pretty big deal. They have a -3 net rating when he is not out there and their offense is pretty bad. He’s really vital because they’re already up against it. A lot of teams have trouble defending a guy like Nikola Jokic, but the Warriors are also really small. They don’t really have many center options to throw at him outside of Kevon Looney. If Curry’s not going to be out there, it’s going to be a pretty challenging series. I still think ultimately Curry’s going to play at some point, but we just don’t know when and whether it will be Game 1, 2 or 3.
Slam-Dunk Bet: Warriors in seven.
New Orleans Pelicans or LA Clippers (N/A) vs. Phoenix Suns (N/A)
I think the Suns would beat either of these teams, but I don’t think they want the Clippers. The Clippers just match up well with them. LA is a little small, but it’s not like the Suns are a dynamic rebounding team. The Clippers are all 6’7″ across the board, can switch multiple positions and they shoot the ball extremely well. Paul George has been a very, very good player against the Phoenix and the Suns have had trouble defending him. I still think Phoenix would beat them, but they don’t want a tough, physical six- or seven-game series in the first round. The Pelicans are actually a sneak option, but I think the Clippers would give the Suns a much bigger challenge.
Slam-Dunk Bet: If it’s the Clippers, I’ll say Suns in six. If it’s the Pelicans I’ll say Suns in 5.
Toronto Raptors (+150) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (-180)
Philly is already 1-3 against Toronto this year. Toronto is a transition team. They like to get up down the floor and they’re super athletic. It’s going to be a problem for Philadelphia. Matisse Thybulle also can’t play in road games in Toronto and he’s one of their best perimeter defenders. Defense has been an issue for them in the past, especially when Joel Embiid’s off the floor. They’re really bad defensively without Thybulle out there. When they get to Toronto and Embiid hits the bench — unless he’s playing 45 minutes a game — those minutes are going to be really impactful and they’re going to be pretty bad for Philly. This has first-round upset written all over it because Toronto is just a matchup nightmare for the 76ers.
Slam-Dunk Bet: Raptors in six.
Brooklyn Nets (+110) vs. Boston Celtics (-130)
Brooklyn is going to face some challenges defensively and that’s going to be something that Boston can really take advantage of. The Nets have faced some really good offensive wings and backcourt players over the past few weeks and they’ve had trouble containing them. Jayson Tatum’s going to have a field day against this defense. Over the course of seven games, I find it hard to believe Brooklyn’s defense is going to be able to contain Boston on that end of the floor. When Kevin Durant isn’t playing, their best shot creator is not on the floor and that’s going to be the problem. If Ben Simmons comes back, maybe he only has to come in and play defense and run in transition, but that’s still a lot to ask against one of the best defenses in the NBA. It’s hard to expect a lot.
Slam-Dunk Bet: Celtics in seven.
Chicago Bulls (+650) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (-1,000)
I find it really hard to see a path for Chicago to even win two games in this series, let alone win it outright. The Bulls have had a lot of trouble with the Bucks in years past and this year they lost all four games. Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged about 30 and 14 on 52% shooting. It was just a nightmare for Chicago. They don’t have an answer for Giannis. Not many teams do, but they don’t even have a player that is physically similar to him who can follow him around. It’s just a really bad matchup for Chicago. In no world would I think that this is going to be a series where the Bulls would have a chance of moving on.
Slam-Dunk Bet: Bucks in four.
Cleveland Cavaliers or Atlanta Hawks (N/A) vs. Miami Heat (N/A)
If it ends up being Atlanta, they could maybe be a threat because they have Trae Young. When he’s out there, he’s really effective and their offense is one of the best in the NBA. It’s all because of Young and how good he’s been. The Heat are really good, really good defensively. But when you have a Duncan Robinson or a Tyler Herro out there, that’s a small weak link that teams have picked on and found success against. Young could go after that pretty easily and exploit it. I think Atlanta would lose the series, but they would at least make it a very competitive and interesting one.
Slam-Dunk Bet: Heat in five.