For those whose memories extend all the way back to last June, remember when the Houston Rockets had a 3-2 lead on the Golden State Warriors but lost Chris Paul to injury? In the first halves of Games 6 and 7, the Rockets played well, shared the ball and got balanced scoring.
In the second half of those two games, James Harden tried to do too much by himself and things went south … which is part of the reason why the Golden State Warriors are the two-time defending NBA champions.
Well, this will not come as welcome news to those living in Utah, but second-round lines for a Houston-Golden State second-round matchup have already been posted by DraftKings Sportsbook despite the fact that both teams are playing Wednesday night in a TNT doubleheader. Golden State is a -375 series favorite over Houston at DraftKings.
Golden State will try to close out the Los Angeles Clippers (the line is -14), and Houston will try to finish off the Utah Jazz (the line is -8).
So a second-round matchup seems like a fait accompli, although teams on the brink of elimination tend to play with a sense of desperation … which is why contrarians will likely take the Jazz and the Clippers on the moneyline tonight.
Heck, the Thunder played with a sense of desperation Tuesday night and may have been the victim of an egregious non-call on Russell Westbrook’s final drive to the basket, and then Damian Lillard happened from 35 feet.
So the next question in regards to Houston and Golden State is which of them will win in the second round if they both get there?
- In their first meeting on Nov. 15 — three games after Carmelo Anthony disappeared — Steph Curry was on the shelf as Houston cruised to a 21-point victory at home.
- In their second meeting on Jan. 3, Harden scored 44 points in a 135-134 OT thriller.
- In their third meeting on Feb. 23, Harden was on the shelf but the Rockets still won 118-112 despite 20-point games from Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
- In their fourth and final meeting on March 11, the Warriors prevailed 106-104 behind 27 points from DeMarcus Cousins to end the Rockets’ nine-game winning streak. Safe to say that won’t be happening if these teams both move on, what with Boogie on the shelf.
So in the category of “you’ve gotta do this before you do that,” both Houston and Golden State have to take care of business Wednesday in order to meet up in a second-round series that will get people talking about something other than the Lakers, Luke Walton and/or Jim Dolan. We’ll get closer to that answer tonight.
Let’s have a look at what else DraftKings Sportsbook has on the board in the Eastern Conference:
Toronto Raptors vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Coming off their Game 5 takedown of Brooklyn, the Sixers are opening as a slight series underdog (+150) vs. Kawhi Leonard and Co Here is why:
- In Game 1 on Oct. 30, the Sixers went up to Toronto and got destroyed by the Raptors 129-112 behind Kawhi Leonard’s 31 points.
- In Game 2 on Dec. 6, Leonard had 36 points in a 113-102 Raptors victory.
- In Game 3 on Dec. 22 in Philly, Leonard, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas all sat out as Philadelphia won 126-101.
- And in Game 4 on Feb. 5, Toronto dropped 40 first-quarter points on the Sixers and cruised to a 119-107 victory.
Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee (-305) is a pretty heavy series favorite as both teams are coming off opening round sweeps.
The teams have not played since Feb. 22, when the Bucks won by one point at Milwaukee in a game that kept the Last 2 minute report folks at NBA headquarters quite busy.
Milwaukee lost the first meeting on Nov. 1, 117-113, and won the second 120-107 in a game that Kyrie Irving sat out.
The teams played each other only three times — an NBA scheduling quirk that happens from time to time (usually, teams in the same conference play each other four times in a season).
James Harden put up 29 points in Game 1 of the Utah-Houston series despite the Jazz forcing him to his right hand. Going forward, we should probably expect more of the same strategy … and Harden’s over/under for points on Wednesday has been set at 34.5 at DraftKings Sportsbook.
Is that too high?
Harden scored 35 or more points 45 times during the regular season, and he topped the 35-point mark four times in the postseason a year ago as the Rockets made it all the way to Game 7 of the Western Conference finals before Harden tried to do too much in the second half of Game 6 and Game 7 with Chris Paul sidelined.
The Rockets are big favorites in the series at +675 after their strong finishing kick to the regular season, and the Jazz do not have a lot of believers outside the one state where sports gambling has no chance to be legalized.
The teams split the season series 2-2, with Harden scoring 43 in a 27-point victory on Feb. 2, 47 in a 5-point victory on Dec. 17; 15 in a 27-point loss to Utah on Dec. 6; and 29 in an 11-point loss to Utah on Oct. 24.
Best to assume that the under will hit if the Rockets lose; the over will hit if the Rockets win.
In last week’s column, we touted the Clippers as a worthy prop bet at 55-1 to win the series at DraftKings, where the odds have since dropped to 14-1. If Doc Rivers takes that $2,000 that was given back to him by a man on the street in the Bay Area and wagers it on his own team, he’ll be collecting a cool $28,000 if Los Angeles knocks off the team that just lost DeMarcus Cousins for the remainder of the postseason. (We are about to start seeing a lot more of Andrew Bogut.)
Let’s take a look at the other six first-round series; what has transpired and what might lie ahead.
Denver vs. San Antonio
The Nuggets had an outstanding comeback in the fourth quarter of Game 2 on Tuesday night, led by Jamal Murray scoring 21 of his 24 points in the final 12 minutes. Nikola Jokic got the better of Jacob Poeltl, and we should all expect that to continue as the series moves to the Pacific Northwest.
Tied 1-1, the series is viewed as more or less of a tossup with the Spurs at +125 and the Nuggets at -155. The coaching edge goes to the Spurs, but the talent and depth edge is clearly in favor of the Nuggets.
Portland vs. Oklahoma City
Despite the Blazers holding a 2-0 lead, this one is still being considered as a possible Thunder series victory by the bookmakers, with Oklahoma City listed at +200. One thing for certain: There will be a great deal of theatrics from Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard … and we kindly request that DraftKings post a prop bet on whether the two will engage in fisticuffs.
Indiana vs. Boston
The Pacers do not have a player who can say “Give me the ball and get the hell out of the way.” Actually, they do have a guy like that, but Victor Oladipo is done for the season.
Boston has the superior depth and the only superstar in this series, Kyrie Irving, and they are listed as -1000 favorites to win the series. After the Game 1 dud the Pacers pulled on Sunday, that makes a lot of sense. The onus Wednesday will be on Nate McMillan to find somebody to assert himself, and the most likely candidate is Bogan Bogdanovic. … Keep in mind that the Celtics still have chemistry issues, so nothing is guaranteed. … For those who believe the Pacers will win the next four, the odds at DraftKings are 100-1.
Milwaukee vs. Detroit
Game 1 was such a crazy blowout, the Bucks are actually listed at -200 to win the series in a sweep. The Pistons were already mediocre before losing Blake Griffin for the series, and this is bound to be a channel changer when it resumes Wednesday on NBA TV.
The most interesting prop bet on the board is Giannis Antetokounmpo’s points (26.5). He had 24 points in 23 minutes in Game 1, and tonight it’ll probably a matter of how soon garbage time arrives. For those who believe the Pistons can win a couple of games, the line on Milwaukee winning 4-2 is 14-1.
Toronto vs. Orlando
Normalcy returned to Canada Tuesday night as Kawhi Leonard asserted himself, Kyle Lowry came back from the dead and Orlando went back to looking like a bottom feeder. … But here is the thing: Orlando beat Toronto by 29 and 15 in two of their three regular season victories, so the matchup can favor the Vucevic-Augustin team when circumstances permit. The bookmakers are being cautious on this one, with a 4-3 series victory by Toronto listed at +280. For those who believe in monumental upsets, the Magic are 13-1 to win it in 7.
Philadelphia vs. Brooklyn
Easily the most competitive series in the East, it resumes Thursday night at Barclay’s Center tied up 1-1. As reported by the New York Daily News, coach Brett Brown is coaching for his job. Also, the chemistry issues on the Sixers are more acute than many would be led to believe.
The key to this series will be the play of Joel Embiid, who is a matchup nightmare for Nets starter Jarrett Allen and backup Ed Davis. But Embiid likes to heat check at the start of games with 3-point shots, and if he does that in Brooklyn and the Sixers are forced to play from behind, the Nets can take both Games 3 and 4.
The odds of the Nets winning in 7 games are 9-1.
With LeBron James sitting out the playoffs for the first time in as long as anyone can remember, the NBA has a problem on its hands: Which team are they going to showcase to a national audience to prevent folks from spending their weekends watching The Masters?
That series turns out to be the Los Angeles Clippers against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, with ABC showcasing that series with a Saturday night telecast of Game 1 and a Sunday afternoon (April 21) showcase of Game 4.
And the Clippers have no chance, correct?
That is what the sportsbooks are predicting, with the Clippers listed as 55/1 underdogs to win the best-of-seven series at DraftKings Sportsbook … or to put it another way, the Warriors being listed as -20000 (200/1) to advance to the second round.
Well, please pardon the oppositional nature of this column … because there is a school of thought that the Warriors are vulnerable for a number of reasons:
- Coach Steve Kerr and Draymond Green have endured a great deal of friction this season.
- Kevin Durant’s impending free agency has been a dark cloud hanging over the team the entire season.
- Steph Curry has a foot injury that is being described as “minor” … but no injury below either of Curry’s knees is ever really “minor.”
Yes, the Warriors won the season series 3-1, including a 27-point beatdown four days ago in which Golden State clinched the No. 1 seed in the West and outscored the Clippers 42-18 in the third quarter to turn the game into a runaway.
And that is bound to happen again in Games 1, 2, 3 and 4, correct?
Well … let’s take a closer look at the Clippers.
Don’t dismiss them
First and foremost, the Clippers turned over their roster at the trade deadline when they dealt Tobias Harris to the Philadelphia 76ers and brought in rookie Landry Shamet, along with another trade in which they acquired center Ivica Zubac from the Los Angeles Lakers.
“The chemistry was instant,” said Danilo Gallinari … a comment that was echoed by Doc Rivers in a late-season visit to Madison Square Garden at which he marveled at the way his youth-laden roster had become a solid defensive team with a bunch of players in their early 20s who were great listeners when it came to receiving tutelage from the coaching staff and Sixth Man of the Year shoo-in Lou Williams.
A top-five finish in Sixth Man of the Year voting is expected for Montrezl Harrell, who will tag team with Zubac to defend DeMarcus Cousins as Boogie he plays playoff basketball with the Warriors for the first time.
“It’s a whole new season,” coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s time to get going.”
Something else to keep in mind: When Game 1 of the NBA Finals was played last season, the Warriors were prohibitive favorites in Game 1 but might have lost if J.R. Smith had not had his moment of cranial flatulence, leading to an excruciating loss that prompted LeBron James to take out his anger on an Oracle Center blackboard.
You never know what to expect in a Game 1, so keep that in mind when considering the relative merits of the Clippers being listed as a 13-point underdog for Saturday opener.
Shooting star needs to shine
The key player in the series for Los Angeles will be Williams, who has not had a single-digit scoring game since Dec. 6 — a run of 47 consecutive games in double figures.
The 15-year veteran will be appearing in the playoffs for the eighth time (with no starts), and for the Clippers to have any chance of pulling off the unimaginable Williams will have to improve on his career postseason shooting percentages of 40.5 overall and 32 percent from 3-point range.
Also, the Clippers are a very young team — usually a sign of a team that needs to learn how to absorb losses rather than figuring out ways to produce victories. The task of focusing on one game at a time will fall upon coach Doc Rivers, who has coached 161 postseason games during his 20 seasons holding a clipboard.
But Rivers does have one of the best defensive guards in the NBA at his disposal in Patrick Beverley, who will likely draw the defensive assignment on Curry.
“Should we take that personal that the Warriors are the favorite?” Rivers said. “The [Clippers] have a chip anyway. … My guess is in the next 48 hours someone’s going to write something or say something that will piss Pat off, and he’ll tell everybody and it will work out for us.”
Rivers played his regular group in the season finale against Utah and watched as they picked up right where they left off in March, when the Clippers (48-34) went an NBA-best 13-2.
Win or lose, the Clips are value
Of course, March is in everyone’s rearview mirror. And because memories are short, everyone is sort of concentrating on how Houston may be the team to beat in the West because of the way they finished the regular season.
But remember, wagering opportunities that make sense — especially in terms of long odds — are few and far between. The Clippers may or may not be one of them …. that is for the reader to decide.
But discount them at your own peril. They are one of the stronger No. 8 seed to come along in quite some time.
Zion Williamson’s college season is over. Ja Morant is done, too. And if you listen to 99% of the talking heads out there, those are the two guys who are going No. 1 and No. 2 in the 2019 NBA draft.
But if you sit back and think about it, and you consider history, there is a case to be made: What everyone is predicting in early April will not come to fruition in late June.
Which then brings us to Jarrett Culver.
Potential draft raider
Only one lottery-bound player competing in the NCAA Final Four this weekend in Minneapolis, and it is the Texas Tech Red Raiders swingman who is averaging 18.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists.
I am told that the New York Knicks are dialed in on him as the No. 3 pick if they fail to win one of the top two spots in the lottery. It is time to take a close look at whether he may move up to No. 2 with a breakout performance this weekend.
The bottom three teams in the NBA each have a 14% chance at winning the lottery. Right now, the Knicks, Cavaliers and Suns appear to be those three teams — especially with Trae Young making a late push for rookie of the year as the Atlanta Hawks are knocking off quality teams.
Under the old system, which encouraged taking, the top seed had a 25% chance of winning the lottery, the second seed had a 19.9% chance and the third seed had a 15.6% chance.
Under the new system, the difference in lottery odds between the first three seeds (14%) and the fourth seed (12.5%) will be 1.5%. The difference between the fourth seed and the fifth seed (10.5%) will be 2%, and the difference between the fifth seed and the sixth seed (9%) will be 1.5%.
So, let’s imagine that a random team, perhaps the Washington Wizards, win the draft lottery. Williamson would be a no-brainer — unless the person taking over for the fired Ernie Grunfeld can package the No. 1 pick and John Wall’s burdensome contract to move down a few spots.
The Wizards are already overloaded at Williamson’s position with Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker (although Parker has a $20 million contract that will likely be declined). The opportunity to shed Wall’s contract (he is due $38 million, $41 million, $44 million and $47 million over the next four seasons) will allow the Wizards’ new head honcho to clear $58 million in cap space if Parker’s option is not renewed.
This would incentivize the Wizards to trade away the draft right to Williamson and allow them to become players on the free agency market (Kevin Durant grew up in Maryland).
If the team picking No. 2 was so ga-ga over Williamson that they would take on Wall’s contract, it makes sense. Then it would be a question of whether the Wizards would want Morant at No. 2, or whether Culver might be a better fit next to Bradley Beal and Durant.
And much of that might depend on whether the new person in charge is sold on Tomas Satoransky as a long-term option at point guard.
Why are we kicking this idea around?
Because DraftKings Sportsbook has Culver listed at 70-1 to be the No. 2 pick in the draft, with Williamson listed at 11-2. Coby White, of North Carolina, and Rui Hachimura, of Gonzaga, are both on the board at 16-1.
And the history of No. 2 overall picks is a checkered one.
The jury is still out on the 2018 No. 2 pick, Marvin Bagley III, who has battled injuries throughout his rookie season in Sacramento but has been a favorite of the front office and the coaching staff because of his work ethic.
Lonzo Ball went No. 2 in 2017 — one pick after Markelle Fultz, whose tenure in Philadelphia was unremarkable at best (and that is being generous).
Brandon Ingram went No. 2 in 2016, and he has done well in his Lakers career but will no doubt be playing for the Pelicans next season after the Anthony Davis-to-LA deal finally gets done.
D’Angelo Russell went No. 2 to the Lakers in 2016 but is now plying his trade in Brooklyn, where he is an all-star but rarely goes to the free throw line.
Jabari Parker went No. 2 in 2014, and Victor Oladipo went No. 2 in 2013 after the Cavs sort of whiffed on Anthony Bennett.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been unremarkable ever since being the No. 2 pick in 2012, and we haven’t heard much from Derrick Williams since he went No. 2 in 2011.
Evan Turner (2010) and Hasheem Thabeet (2009) were not exactly the greatest No. 2 picks of all time, and we still have not even mentioned the words “Darko” and “Milicic.”
So, keep something in mind when locking in Williamson and Morant as sure things at No. 1 and No. 2: Things change, and if Culver wins a national championship for Texas Tech with the whole country watching, there is going to be some serious reconsidering going on.
Culver at No. 2 is worth a flyer at 70-1, but the folks at DraftKings are pretty sharp and will not leave him at that price is they see sharp money coming in.
Timing is everything, as they say, and the time to place that wager is now if you choose to go against conventional wisdom. Good luck.
You’d have to be crazy to bet on the Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons and/or Orlando Magic to win the NBA Eastern Conference, correct?
Well, Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors fans would say so … but no team is a lock in late March … and hopes can get dashed in an instant, as any Portland Trail Blazers fan could tell you after what we saw with Jusuf Nurkic two nights ago.
The fact of the matter is this: The Bucks are somewhat exposed because of injuries to Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic, and as good of a job as coach Mike Budenholzer has done, there are quite a few new members of this year’s Bucks team compared to last year’s Bucks team … and they have not yet been tested as a unit (although that certainly was not the case Tuesday night vs. Houston.)
Toronto is another story. The Raptors went into the playoffs with high hopes a year ago with Duane Casey as the Coach of the Year, but Masai Ujiri blew up the team and fired the coach after they flamed out in the second round against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in a four-game sweep.
The team is whole again and recently added Jodie Meeks, but Kawhi Leonard has not played a postseason game in two seasons … and his future remains undetermined given his upcoming unrestricted free agent status.
DraftKings Sportsbook is listing the Magic, Heat and Hornets at 80-1 to win the Eastern Conference title; and the Pistons are sitting at 66-1.
We will spare you the odds of any of those outliers winning the NBA championship, because that just ain’t going to happen. (Although DraftKings has those odds up if you want to go there).
But the East?
Here’s what’s up:
Detroit Pistons (+6600)
The Pistons have a 95 percent chance of making the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, with a fairly decent schedule that includes games vs. Orlando and Portland, a back-to-back with the Pacers, at Oklahoma City, then home for the Thunder, Hornets and Grizzlies before finishing up at New York.
They went only 1-4 on their recent five-game road trip, but Wayne Ellington was a nice replacement for Reggie Bullock and Ish Smith is a game-changer in terms of pace of play when he subs out Reggie Bullock. Andre Drummond is a 20-20 guy who could become a 30-30 guy depending on the playoff matchup. (If Detroit plays Milwaukee, for example, Brook Lopez will not be allowed to let Giannis handle the bulk of the rebounding chores.)
Orlando Magic (+8000)
The Magic have a 61 percent chance of making the playoffs according to FiveThirtyEight.com, and their final seven games are at Detroit, at Indiana, at Toronto, home for the Knicks and Hawks, then at Boston and at Orlando. They are taking a six-game winning streak into Thursday night’s game at Detroit, and they have a dominant player in Nikola Vucevic if he is matched up against an inexperienced and/or weak center. Insert your own Marc Gasol/Brook Lopez joke here.
Vucevic himself boldly predicted that the Magic were only one decent winning streak away from being a playoff team, and he may just end up being right. Momentum is a big thing to carry into the postseason, and Orlando certainly has it is we get set to wrap up the month of March.
Miami Heat (+8000)
The Heat are a certainty to do one thing well: Run Erik Spoelstra’s system. The guy is probably the most underrated guy in the NBA coaching ranks (apologies to Luke Walton), and Goran Dragic and Co. are a sneaky 9-4 thus far in the month of March including road wins over the Thunder and Spurs.
Yes, this is shaping to be not much more than a farewell tour season for Dwyane Wade, but Miami has quite a two-headed monster at center with Bam Adebayo and Hassan Whiteside, and there are seven players averaging double figures. As we saw last year in Game 2 of the first round against Philadelphia, Wade can still summon his younger self in big moments. So even though they are sub-.500 now, if the brackets work in their favor … you never know.
Charlotte Hornets (+8000)
The Hornets are another quandary. Nobody aside from Michael Jordan and UConn fans (nostalgic for the days of Kemba Walker) pays all that much attention to them, but Walker is the upcoming unrestricted free agent who consistently gets left off every “Best Free Agents Out There” list, and Frank Kaminsky is making himself relevant for the first time since he was at the University of Wisconsin.
Everybody seems to bring their “B” game when going up against these guys, most recently evidenced by the Spurs getting knocked off as James Borrego cold-heartedly left Tony Parker on the bench for the entire game. They have strung together four straight wins, the latter three coming against Boston, Toronto and San Antonio, and their chances of moving up to sixth to get a shot at the struggling Celtics or Sixers will largely depend on how they do on their upcoming West Coast trip to play the Lakers, Warriors, Jazz and Pelicans.
Is the East really wide open?
The bottom line is this when looking at the Eastern Conference and whether an outlier team will win: The Bucks are unproven; the Raptors are unproven; the Sixers and Celtics have locker room issues; the Nets are probably not getting out of the first round after failing to make a deal at the deadline; and the Pacers are sneaky good but are getting nowhere near the production from Wes Mathews that they were getting from Victor Oladipo.
If there ever was a year when an outlier with long odds was worth a flyer at 66-1 or 80-1 odds, this may be that year.
Chris Sheridan is a veteran NBA writer who has worked for The Associated Press, ESPN, NJ.com, GetMoreSports.com, Heavy.com and The New York Daily News. This is his debut column for TheLines.com. Follow him on Twitter @sheridanhoops