Round 1 of this year’s NBA Playoffs has been an absolute whirlwind.
In 10 days, we’ve seen two key injuries to the reigning Eastern and Western Conference champions. A series sweep of the team that was among the favorites to win the title for the majority of the season. And a host of upsets, blowouts, letdowns and comebacks. (And there are still three more rounds to go.)
Our crew of NBA analysts explain why they are betting the underdogs in three of those four series to win outright.
NBA Playoffs Odds & Picks
|Click on a series to skip ahead|
|Grizzlies vs. Timberwolves||Series Tied 2-2|
|Suns vs. Pelicans||Series Tied 2-2|
|76ers vs. Raptors||76ers Lead 3-2|
Memphis Grizzlies vs. Minnesota Timberwolves
Matt Moore: Timberwolves Win Series (+260, BetMGM)
This was my pre-series pick and I’m sticking with it. The numbers don’t look great based on historical trends. Home teams in Game 5 of a 2-2 series have gone 73-23 (76%) straight up, and then gone 53-32 (62.4%) in Game 6.
But Minnesota is one outlandish, nonsensical, bizarre collapse away from this being 3-1 in its favor. Memphis has gotten massive shooting performances. Both teams are tied in half-court offensive efficiency in their two respective wins in this series. They are also tied in fast break points.
The Grizzlies have an 52.9% Effective Field Goal Percentage compared to the Wolves’ 52.8%. They are separated by one percentage point in Free Throw Rate. The Grizzlies have more second chance points, the Wolves have more made 3’s.
This is a coin flip series. Each team has won on the opponent’s home floor, but the Timberwolves didn’t need a 50-13 run to get the job done; they won a normal basketball game.
The composure of Minnesota for sure is a concern.
But lineups with Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane, the Grizzlies’ three best players, are +30 in wins (an outrageous number), and -14 in the two losses.
I think Memphis can win, but I think the Wolves have enough matchup advantages to where there’s value on the Wolves’ odds outright.
Joe Dellera: Timberwolves Win Series (+260, BetMGM)
I also picked the Timberwolves to win this series along with Matt and I think this is a spot to continue backing them.
One of the major storylines in this series is that Minnesota and Chris Finch have done an excellent job of attacking the Grizzlies weaknesses. First, the Wolves made Steven Adams completely unplayable in this series. Then, Ja Morant simply couldn’t get into any type of rhythm on offense.
Morant is getting blitzed on offense and he is turning into a pass first guard for this series — that’s not how Memphis has generally found success this season considering Morant scores less and assists more in their losses.
The primary beneficiary is Desmond Bane, who has been incredible from 3-point range, but his home/road splits are significant. He’s scoring about four points fewer at home than on the road and his 3-point percentage drops by nearly 9%. He’s still excellent and the volume should be there, but this is a lot to ask of a second-year guard.
Another major issue for Memphis has been foul trouble. Jaren Jackson Jr. is the primary issue here. They need his minutes to combat Towns, but he cannot stay out of foul trouble. This is not a bad whistle issue, this is a JJJ thing when he’s being asked to play center without Adams.
And when they substitute Xavier Tillman in to allow JJJ to play power forward? He gets into foul trouble as well. While the Grizzlies are averaging about three fewer fouls than the Timberwolves on a per game basis, fouls are impacting Memphis’ rotations a bit more.
The Timberwolves have more ways to adjust, and more players I trust to score. They have a fairly significant edge in 3-point shooting and they are not in a situation where their best player, Karl-Anthony Towns, is being played off the floor due to scheme.
To me, this series is a pick’em with a slight edge to Memphis due to the home court advantage and if you do not have a Timberwolves ticket, now is a good time to buy.
Phoenix Suns vs. New Orleans Pelicans
Raheem Palmer: Pelicans Win Series (+240, WynnBet)
If you’ve listened to the Buckets podcast with my colleagues Matt Moore and Brandon Anderson, you’ve heard me say the Pelicans are not only live to win this series, this matchup is close to a coin flip.
This series is being priced as if the Suns are the vastly superior team. Based on what we saw in the regular season that was true as they boasted a top-five offense and defense. However, Devin Booker’s injury has proven to be a game-changer.
It’s tough to replace 26.8 points per game and a 32% Usage Rate. Without Booker in this lineup, you’re left with Chris Paul and a team full of elite role players. While that’s enough to win during the regular season, it’s become increasingly clear this team doesn’t have another gear.
As great as the Suns have been, they don’t have a profile of a team that should dominate in the modern NBA. The rank 25th in 3-point frequency (33.1%) and last in frequency of attempts at the rim (25.3%). They’re highly dependent on role players in Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Jae Crowder to hit open looks and that group is shooting 10-of-46 combined on 3s in this series. Playoffs are about stars and while DeAndre Ayton has stepped up in two games without Booker (25.5 points, 10.5 rebounds), it may not be enough.
Paul is a hall of fame point guard and one of the best floor generals to ever play the game, but at this stage of his career he lacks is the ability to shoulder the team’s scoring load. With Booker in the lineup, Paul could set up teammates, pick his spots and choose when to take over. Now, he has to be the guy and it’s tough to trust a 36 year old Paul to sustain that game by game, particularly with the smothering and pesky defense of Jose Alvarado.
Paul took over in the fourth quarter of Game 1 to shut the door on the Pelicans and put up 28 points on 10-of-18 shooting in a Game 3 win, but he was mediocre in Game 2 and downright dreadful in Game 4 where he shot 2-of-8 from the field and scored four points.
While you can expect Paul to play better, the Pelicans adjusted in Game 4 by not allowing him to abuse Jonas Valanciunas on switches. They need Paul to be the guy and I’m not willing to bet on that happening two more times in this series.
Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum are the two best shot makers in the series, which gives them a real advantage against this version of the Suns. Ingram is averaging a series-high 29.8 points on 51.3% shooting while McCollum is averaging 24 points per game.
Along with having the two best shot makers in the series, the Pelicans are getting to the free throw line at will (26.2% Free Throw Rate) and dominating the Offensive Glass.
Throughout this series, they have a 37.9% Offensive Rebound Rate and while they haven’t consistently converted on second chance points, they are generating more possessions than the Suns throughout this series.
Outside of Game 1 where the Pelicans couldn’t buy a bucket in the first half, the Pelicans have been downright dominant on offense scoring, 1.23 points per possession, second only to the Golden State Warriors during the playoffs. This version of the Pelicans likely wouldn’t have been a No. 8 seed with a full season of Ingram and McCollum.
The market is completely undervaluing the Pelicans and overvaluing the Suns, so I’ll take the +235 on the Pelicans to win the series outright. If they lose Game 5 on the road, I’m prepared to add another unit to my position as I’d pick them to win at home in Game 6.
At that point, we’ve got a winner-take-all Game 7 where anything can happen, especially when you have arguably the best shot makers on your side.
Philadelphia 76ers vs. Toronto Raptors
Raheem Palmer: Raptors Win Series (+590, FanDuel)
I played the Philadelphia 76ers -184 to win the series and while I felt comfortable up 3-0 with it being a death sentence for teams facing such a deficit, I no longer feel safe in this spot.
If there’s anyone who can choke away a 3-0 lead, it’s Glenn Rivers and James Harden; this feels like a great opportunity to take a shot on history. The big issue here is that Joel Embiid is playing with a torn ligament in his right thumb and over the past two games he’s averaging 20 points 45% shooting from the field while going 0-for-5 from 3-point range.
If Embiid can’t be Embiid, this team is in trouble, particularly with the way Harden is playing as the ratio from shots made to field goal attempts look more like tour dates than shooting nights we’d expect from an All-Star player.
It’s clear that Harden has reached what I like to call #LarryHolmesStatus where a star player is past their prime. Throughout this series, Harden is averaging just 18.4 points per game on 37.3% shooting. He no longer has the burst to get to the rim consistently and with the Raptors length on the wing, the 76ers are in a tough spot with two stars who can’t carry a team the way they used to.
In addition, Harden and Embiid are turnover prone players which fuels a Raptors offense which generates much of their offense in transition.
The injury to Fred VanVleet that forced him out of Game 4 and kept him out of Game 5 might have been a blessing in disguise as he was having an abysmal series, averaging 13.8 points per game on just 35.2% shooting.
His injury has also forced even more length on the floor and it’s clear that for much of the last three games Pascal Siakam has been the best player in the series.
I’ll take a shot on the Raptors to win the series at +590.