Nobody likes predictability. The Stanley Cup Playoffs get a ton of praise every year for keeping fans on the edge of their seats in every round. Anything can happen in any given series, even against teams with record-setting regular seasons like this year’s Boston Bruins. That’s part of the appeal. Everyone wants to watch the impossible happen, especially on the basketball court. The NCAA tournament is one of the biggest events of the year, mainly because of the unpredictability. We all act shocked after the first day when we find out 99.9% of the brackets are busted. It’s what makes it special.
The NBA playoffs have a different vibe. We trade the jaw-dropping upsets for the iconic moments from individual players building their legacies. That’s the draw of the NBA. It’s about Michael Jordan dropping the dagger on Craig Ehlo and the entire city of Cleveland, the Flu Game or the last shot over Bryon Russell. It’s about LeBron James, after all those years, bringing an NBA championship to those same Cavaliers fans who were convinced they were cursed. Whether it’s Steph Curry’s half-court game-winner against Kevin Durant in 2016, or any of his shots that helped build the dynasty in the Bay, it’s the “how” not the “who” that has us glued to the screen.
That’s not to say the top seeds in the NBA playoffs always advance, but when the Miami Heat upset the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, I had a feeling this year's playoffs would be special, in more of a March Madness sort of way. We are still early in the second round, and any combination of the eight remaining teams playing in the finals wouldn’t be a huge surprise. Both conferences are up for grabs with the sixth and seventh seeds playing like the two best teams in the West, while Miami looks like the most reliable team in the East as an eight seed.
When the matchups have everyone throwing up their hands, it’s a signal to turn to the futures market. We all had a feeling the West would be wide open, but it’s the East that has me most intrigued. Both underdogs stole the first game and are headed back to their home floors with the series tied 1-1. Each team has flaws, and the star power to overcome them. Here’s why the best value may be with the team nobody expected to be here.
Boston Celtics -130
The Celtics are the conference’s most talented team on paper and finished the regular season with the second-best record in basketball. Jayson Tatum continues to elevate his game, and Boston’s depth allows it to match up with anyone. It makes sense that the Celtics are the favorites at -130 odds. It doesn’t mean they are a great bet to make it to the NBA Finals. The Celtics crushed the Sixers on Wednesday night to avoid falling behind 2-0, but the blowout didn’t erase the feeling that something is broken in Boston. I can’t get the bizarre sequence in the final minutes of Game 1 out of my head. The optics were awful on Malcolm Brogdon’s turnover, but it was a byproduct of the team’s unwillingness to take critical shots down the stretch even when it had an open look. It’s hard for me to believe the Celtics' half-court woes won’t haunt them when it matters most. I didn’t like that they let Atlanta hang around for six games. Despite the combination of Joe Mazzulla’s inexperience and the lack of killer instinct, the Celtics remain the most likely team to emerge from the East, but it's a hard sell at this price.
Philadelphia 76ers +300
Game 3 will be critical for the psyche of the Sixers. Despite stealing home-court advantage, I have my doubts Philadelphia can outlast the Celtics. How Joel Embiid holds up in the series will be a major factor, but James Harden playing with energy and consistency will be equally important. Harden turned back the clock with a 45-point performance in Game 1, but shot 2-of-14 and 0-of-6 from 3-point range for an encore. Harden and Embiid only get one day of rest before Game 3, and falling behind 2-1 will add pressure to a team that has been unable to get past the second round in Embiid’s career. The odds at +300 imply a 25% probability Philly finds itself in the Finals, which I think is fair. Personally, I need to see more in regards to Embiid and Harden’s durability before I can get involved with the 76ers.
New York Knicks +600
Maybe I’m overreacting; maybe I am not. But the way the Knicks struggled to knot the series convinced me they are in serious trouble. While I understand the fallen-star angle, where a team elevates its play for one game in the absence of its star player, it’s difficult to come away from the first two games with the belief the Knicks are the better team. The only reason the Heat aren’t heading home with a 2-0 vice grip on this series is because of a Herculean effort on the boards by Josh Hart and Isaiah Hartenstein in the final minutes. The Knicks are now small underdogs to advance (-105), and I think the books are giving them a little more credit than they earned. I like Miami to win the series, and Miami to do it in seven games is worth a look at +550. This won’t be easy for either team, but Game 2 gave me enough confidence that Jimmy Butler has a little more help than I initially thought. The odds are tempting for New York at +600 because the field is wide open. But I don’t see Butler letting the Knicks off the hook now that they've relinquished home-court advantage.
Miami Heat +700
We buried the lead by failing to give glowing endorsements to the previous three teams. I never pictured myself recommending an eighth seed to go to the Finals, but there is a first for everything. Let’s do our best to forget that Miami only won 44 games this year and lost its opening game in the play-in tournament. Instead, let’s focus on the fact that we are getting 7-to-1 with a team that took out the Milwaukee Bucks in five games. Miami is now 5-1 in the postseason (3-1 on the road) when Butler is on the floor. Obviously, the bet is dependent on Butler’s ankle not being a recurring problem. He has been nothing short of elite this postseason, but getting the best version of “Playoff Jimmy” we have ever seen might not even be Miami’s biggest advantage. Erik Spoelstra is clearly the strongest coach left in the field, so having a guy you can count on to make solid adjustments throughout the series with a superstar playing out his mind sounds like a solid formula. All things being equal, I’m not going to say the Heat have the best chance to run the table, but that’s the beauty of sports betting. All things aren’t equal. We are getting +700. If I’m going to take a shot with anyone in this spot, it’s going to be with a coach and player who have proven they can do it.