NBA Playoffs: The 1st-Round Matchups

TheSportsNotebook has posted the Tale of the Tape for the playoff teams in both the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference of the NBA playoffs. Now, with tipoff of the postseason set for early Saturday afternoon, it’s time to dive into the first-round matchups. What follows are the series betting odds for each matchup, followed by some of my own thoughts and a misguided prediction.

The betting odds are expressed in increments of $100. If a favorite is (-150), it means you have to wager that amount to turn a $100 profit. If an underdog is (+125), a $100 bet will get you that higher amount in profit. You will note that the numbers on the favorites are higher than those of the underdog. This is how the “juice”, or the house advantage gets expressed in this type of betting, unlike an individual football or basketball game where losing bets just pay an additional 10 percent.

Indiana (-700) Atlanta (+500): The Pacers have been a funk for the better part of a couple months, and even in ideal circumstances, if they have a vulnerability it’s in the backcourt where George Hill and Lance Stephenson can be inconsistent. Atlanta’s strength is their guard play, with Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. That’s the case for an upset, or at least a long-drawn out series.

I wouldn’t buy on the matchup edge. Hill and Stephenson can be inconsistent, but that can also be really good, so it’s debatable if the Hawks are even better in the backcourt. And even if you want to go there, they are completely ill-equipped to matchup with Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert across the front line. If Indiana loses this series or gets pushed past five games, it’s solely about their state of mind.

I’m taking the Pacers in five, and feel like even that is somewhat dissing their mental toughness, because on paper, this should be an easy sweep.

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Chicago (-215) Washington (+180): Washington has the personnel to matchup with Chicago. You can argue that John Wall is the best player on the floor, and they have depth down low. The flip side to that argument though is that “Wall-as-best-player” argument focuses exclusively on stats. If you add mental and physical toughness, and ability to lead a team then Chicago’s Joakim Noah is the man.

And really, that’s this series in a nutshell. The Wizards have the talent to run with the Bulls and even beat them. But Chicago is so tough, so hard-nosed and so battle-tested, it’s just impossible to imagine them losing this series. It won’t look pretty, because it never does, but envisioning Washington winning four times over a two-week period is just too big a stretch.

The games will all be close, but the consistent theme will be Chicago’s close-out ability, and they do it in five games.

Toronto (+130) Brooklyn (-150): This series is the popular answer to the question of whether there will be an upset in the first round, and you can play it either way. Brooklyn is the betting favorite, Toronto is the #3 seed and has homecourt advantage.

Toronto gets terrific backcourt play from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but this is a battle they won’t win against Brooklyn, who counters with Joe Johnson and Deron Williams. The area where the Nets have some potential vulnerability is inside. Toronto’s got some good rebounders, but not enough people who can score. And if we assume that Kevin Garnett is going to radically increase his minutes and production—a fair assumption—that even Brooklyn’s weakness gets negated.

Brooklyn in six. I’m concerned enough about the rebounding to give the Raptors a couple wins on their home floor.

Miami (-3600) Charlotte (+1600): Now this betting line shocks me. Not because I think Charlotte has a snowball’s chance, but I don’t know that their chances are that much worse than Atlanta’s. Miami is another team who’s been in a funk for a few months. Although I guess whether Charlotte is +600 or +1600 doesn’t really matter, because betting them to beat the Heat four times is throwing your money away at any price.

The real question is whether Charlotte can win one game, and if you’re a bettor, if they can cover up to three pointspreads in individual games. For that to happen, Al Jefferson has to have big games inside, both scoring and rebounding, where Miami is most vulnerable. Kemba Walker has to go off on the outside.

I can see Jefferson playing very well and Charlotte getting those aforementioned covers. But for those to turn into outright wins means Walker has to thrive, and I don’t see Dwayne Wade, Mario Chalmers and that deep Miami backcourt allowing it to happen. Miami sweeps Charlotte home.

San Antonio (-950) Dallas (+635): The only thing to be nervous about with the Spurs is whether the veteran legs of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker can hold up (I would include Manu Ginobli, but he no longer has to play the same kind of minutes as Duncan and Parker). In the first round, fatigue isn’t going to be an issue.

There’s respect being given to Dirk Nowitzki, which is appropriate for a player who carried a team to the 2011 NBA title. What’s not appropriate is assuming that three years after that triumph, with a supporting cast not nearly as deep, and with a team that doesn’t play good defense, that Dirk can keep up the Spurs. Dallas probably can win one game, and it wouldn’t shock me if they took two. But that’s the high point.

San Antonio in five.

Houston (-230) Portland (+195): This one’s got the potential to be the best of the first-round series, which is fitting for the 4-5 matchup in the deeper conference. Portland can pour in the points, and with Lamarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Damian Lilliard they have three outstanding players to match up with James Harden, Chandler Parsons and Dwight Howard for Houston.

But the Rockets are deeper, able to rotate two point guards in Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverly, and Omer Asik leading a good group of complementary rebounders. Most important, Houston is a good defensive team, while Portland is not.

The defense is the big issue with me, as it has been all year when I look at Portland. It’s why, when the Blazers were in the top three of the West, I expected them to fall to #6. They ended up in the 5-spot thanks mainly to some of Golden State’s dysfunction, but I still think they’re being exposed as a team that’s a nice playoff team, but not a lot more. The series will be fun and go six games, but Houston wins it.

LA Clippers (-380) Golden State (+300): If we would have looked at this series back in November, it would have looked like a titanic battle. Maybe it will still work out that way. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson took over a first-round series for Golden State last year when they upset Denver out of the same 6-seed they sit in right now.

Los Angeles is playing good basketball right now, and it’s tough to think of a better inside-out combo than Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. Especially when you add in Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick loosening things up on the perimeter and DeAndre Jordan going to the boards. Furthermore, Golden State is missing center Andrew Bogut and there is discord between head coach Mark Jackson and the front office.

That’s why I’m rolling the dice here—not in terms of the series winner, where the chalk will prevail. But I’ll say the Clippers do it in a sweep.

Oklahoma City (-460) Memphis (+360): This is a big-time battle for a 2-7 matchup in the NBA. Memphis is playing its best basketball right now, they play a slowdown tempo, and they’ve got great players inside, with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol that are very difficult to match up with. And they’re the team that knocked Oklahoma City out of last year’s playoffs, in the second round.

Against all this, OkC throws Kevin Durant, having his best year. They not only have revenge going for them, they have Russell Westbrook, who was out during last year’s playoff loss. And don’t overlook power forward Serge Ibaka, who’s had a solid year and will have a big responsibility in this series against the Grizzlie big men.

I’m debating between two possible outcomes, either of which have Oklahoma City advancing. One is that each game is a grinding war, but the more experienced Thunder find ways to win, sweep their home games, steal a win on the road and close in five. The other sees it going the distance and OkC winning in Game 7. I respect Memphis’ own ability to close enough to think they push this one to the max.

The eight Game 1s will take place over the course of this weekend. The schedule is below. TheSportsNotebook’s NBA playoffs coverage comes back on Monday.

Brooklyn-Toronto (12:30 PM ET, ESPN)
Golden State-LA Clippers (3:30 PM ET, ABC)
Atlanta-Indiana (7 PM ET, ESPN)
Memphis-Oklahoma City (9:30 PM ET, ESPN)

Dallas-San Antonio (1 PM ET, TNT)
Charlotte-Miami (3:30 PM ET, ABC)
Washington-Chicago (7 PM ET, TNT)
Portland-Houston (9:30 PM ET, TNT)