Can Mike D’Antoni’s Rockets overcome Greg Popovich’s Spurs?

I am a strong believer that the best team with the best player wins in a playoff series. There are always exceptions, but more often than not the team with the best players win a playoff series. Coaching matters, but not as much as talent. This is why in our series preview that I picked the Rockets over the Spurs in the second round. Not because I think James Harden is better than Kawhi Leonard, but because the rest of the team is better than the Spurs. There is a good chance, however, that I am wrong.

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This will be the fifth time that Mike D’Antoni and Greg Popovich have coached against each other in a playoff series. Poppovich’s Spurs are 16-4 against D’Antoni’s teams. We’ll throw out the four game sweep when D’Antoni coached the Lakers because that team was a mess and it wasn’t really a D’Antoni system team. Still, 12-4 is not a good look and doesn’t bode well for this series. Why? Well, these two teams are both system teams. James Harden is the evolutionary Steve Nash of D’Antoni’s Suns teams and Popovich’s teams always play the same brand of defense-first team basketball. Look at how these teams compare statistically to the past match-ups.

 2005SunsSpurs
Offensive Rating: 111.9 (1st)104.9 (8th)
Defensive Rating: 103.7 (16th)95.8 (1st)
 2007SunsSpurs
Offensive Rating: 111.4 (1st)106.7 (5th)
Defensive Rating: 103.4 (13th)97.4 (2nd)
 2008SunsSpurs
Offensive Rating: 111.2 (1st)104.7 (13th)
Defensive Rating 104.9 (16th)99.5 (3rd)

An elite level offense with a middling defense against an above average offense with an elite defense. Defense beat offense in every series as the Spurs won every time.

Now, let’s take a look at the statistics for this series.

2017RocketsSpurs
Offensive Rating: 111.8 (2nd)108.8 (7th)
Defensive Rating: 106.4 (18th)100.9 (1st)

Once again, an elite level offense with a middling defense against an above average offense with an elite defense. The players have changed, the league has changed; but these two have remained the same. D’Antoni and Popovich do what they do and they are the very best at what they do.

Of course, you can say things like “well, there was that one series where Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw got suspended for leaving the bench” and that is very true. The Suns could’ve won that series if that didn’t happen, but they didn’t. The history books are written and those D’Antoni/Nash Suns teams never got past the Spurs. What makes you think that this series will be any different?

Kawhi Leonard will be guarding James Harden when it matters and that takes the Rockets offense from an elite level to an average level in a hurry. These two teams played each other three times in the regular season and the Spurs won three of those. Only once did the Rockets score more than 100 points. That is a huge win for the Spurs and a possible harbinger of things to come.

On paper, it’s easy to like the Rockets in this one. I like Clint Capela over Pau Gasol and Dewayne Dedmon. I like Patrick Beverley over Tony Parker and Patty Mills. I like Eric Gordon over Danny Green and Ryan Anderson might not be that far behind LaMarcus Aldridge based on the way he looked in round one. On paper, the Rockets just look better.

The Spurs have never been an on paper team though. They get things done and the whole is always better than the individual with this team. If the Spurs do what they’ve always done to D’Antoni teams and Kawhi takes care of Harden, it feels like we are finally going to see that Spurs-Warriors playoff match-up we have been waiting for.

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The incredible Celtics-Bulls series

The Boston Celtics were the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but a week ago we thought they were done. Everyone thought they were done. The real life trauma of Isaiah Thomas didn’t help and Rajon Rondo stepping into the rejuvenation machine to shut him down definitely didn’t help. The Bulls being a better rebounding time while the Celtics were one of the worst really didn’t help. After two games, Robin Lopez looked like an All-Star and then something switched.

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Now, the Celtics have won three straight and it seems like this series is over. These games haven’t been close and the Celtics are looking more like the team that was the best team in the Eastern Conference while the Bulls have looked more like the dysfunctional mess that had to win on the last day of the season to make the playoffs. It’s funny how these things work.

What’s really crazy is just how extreme the books reacted to this. Check this out:

Before the series: Celtics -525 vs. Bulls +415

Bulls up 2-0: Celtics +210 vs. Bulls -250

Celtics up 3-2: Celtics -900 vs. Bulls +600

That is amazing. If you were a true Celtics supporter and didn’t become blinded by a two-game sample, you could’ve got a really nice number on this series. A top seed at 2/1 when there has only been one top seed in the seven game era is almost too good to be true.

The funny thing is that we didn’t see it. Nobody did. After those first two games this series looked over. Al Horford was over matched by Robin Lopez, Marcus Smart was borderline unplayable and Dwayne Wade was turning back the clock. Jimmy Butler was dominant and Isaiah Thomas wasn’t. It seemed like the Bulls would do the impossible.

And then Rondo got hurt and everything switched. Isaiah Canaan and Michael Carter-Williams are just not ready for this level of basketball and Thomas has made them pay. It’s crazy to think where Rondo was just two years ago (remember the famous Mavericks game where he just quit playing?) and now he’s swinging a playoff series by not being able to play in it, but that’s playoff basketball for you. Injuries matter in a playoff series. A lot.

These two teams lock up on Friday night in Chicago and I believe that Boston will get it done. Gerald Green will do something, Isaiah will be big time once again and the Bulls will once again be the mess that we thought they were.

Boston has made the adjustments that they needed to make and the Bulls just don’t have the pieces to counter back. The line is currently set at PK so this could be a really great time to jump back on the Celtics bandwagon. All they have to do is win and they’ve already done it twice in Chicago. Why not three times? The Bulls have shown no ability to get things down there and I really doubt they will magically discover it in the next twenty four hours.

Get this series done and bring on the Wizards or Hawks.

(Please be the Wizards, please be the Wizards, please be the Wizards.)

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Never underestimate the effect of injuries

On Friday we wrote about how the Bucks and (especially) the Bulls are on the verge of upsets. Since then, we’ve seen both teams have their series tied by the higher seed. For the Raptors, it’s simply a case of playing a great game. For the Celtics, it’s playing better but also from them hugely benefiting from the Bulls’ loss of Rajon Rondo.

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While the Bulls still have their best player in Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, Robin Lopez and the rest of the strong supporting cast, the loss of Rondo really showed. Isaiah Thomas had his way with the Bulls these last two games and suddenly it’s looking like the Celtics will win this series after all.

After last night’s win Thomas was feeling so good about himself that he said this:

“Not one man can guard me and that’s just the confidence I have, but also my coaching staff and my teammates put me in position to be successful. No matter what other teams are doing, [Coach] Brad [Stevens] figures it out and puts me in the position to be the best player I can be, and my teammates allow me to do that, as well.”

Would he have said that if Rondo wasn’t injured? Would he have played as well in these games? Would the the series be tied?

Never underestimate the effect of injuries on the playoffs. The Rajon Rondo injury has taken the Bulls from a 2-0 lead to a 2-2 tie. his injury may have taken the Bulls from a historic first round upset to a a forgettable first round exit. Rondo isn’t the only injury that could swing a playoff series.

Take the Utah Jazz versus Los Angeles Clippers. This was supposed to be one of the best series in the playoffs as these two teams just perfectly matched up and both were healthy coming into the series. Then on one of the very first plays of the game, Rudy Gobert went down with an injury. The exciting, young Jazz team took a lethal blow. They pulled out game one, but they looked lost in both games two and three. The series went from interesting to a seemingly easy Clippers win.

Then a funny thing happened (or a sad thing happened if you are a Clippers fan), Blake Griffin got injured. Suddenly, things were evened back up. Last night the Jazz without Gobert played the Clippers without Griffin and the Jazz won. The Jazz were also without Gordon Hayward for much of the game with food poisoning, but they still pulled it out. Now the series is tied 2-2 and anything can happen.

I like the Jazz going forward as the Clippers with Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan are good, but a bit one-dimensional. That said, Paul is the best player in this series and I really don’t like going against him.

Thankfully, the rest of the playoff series thus far haven’t featured any major injuries. While an injury can swing a series (and potentially create a great betting opportunity), you never really want to see it. These are the best athletes in the world playing at the highest level, we deserve to see the best of the best.

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Should we have seen the Bulls and Bucks coming?

As of this writing the Bulls are up 2-0 on the top seeded Celtics while the Milwaukee Bucks are up 2-1 on the Toronto Raptors. The Celtics and Raptors were considered two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference and possible challengers to the Cavaliers for the the Eastern Conference championship. Thus far, that has not really worked out for either team. These are seven game series and there is still a lot of basketball to play, but it is not looking good for either of these teams.

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Should we have saw this coming? The way that these early games have gone it definitely sees like we should’ve. This isn’t like one team getting really lucky or another team getting really unlucky, the Bucks and Bulls are outplaying their higher seeded opponents and look like the better team on every night they play.

Let’s take a look the first round series odds that we posted before game one.

#1 Boston Celtics vs. #8 Chicago Bulls
Chicago Bulls (Series)+415
Boston Celtics (Series)-525
#3 Toronto Raptors vs. #6  Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee Bucks (Series)+320
Toronto Raptors (Series)-390

Looking at the odds, this is a surprise. Books don’t like paying out 5-1 and the odds were in their favor. There has only been one top seed upset in the seven game first round era and that was ten years ago. Still, this Celtics-Bucks series holds a lot of similarities in that this is just a complete style mismatch.

The Celtics had a great season by hitting a lot of threes, not rebounding at all and getting a bit lucky with crazy Isaiah Thomas fourth quarters. They face a team that doesn’t rely on threes, rebounds well and has two players in Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo who can absolutely shut down Thomas. Robin Lopez is not the kind of player who is getting headlines, but in a series where one team can’t rebound? He’s a superstar.

I want to come up with a scenario where the Celtics come back and win this thing. It’ll involve actually making a lot of threes and a crazy Isaiah Thomas game or two, but that just doesn’t feel likely. It’s more luck based than results based. They don’t get to the line and they don’t rebound. That’s really bad in the playoffs. It really feels like the Bulls are going to pull the upset and I am kicking myself for not realizing it.

By the way, those series odds get updated as things go on. How does Bulls vs. Celtics look now?

#8 Chicago Bulls vs #1 Boston Celtics
Chicago Bulls (Series)-250 
Boston Celtics (Series)+210

The Bucks and Raptors feels like more of a surprise, but it probably shouldn’t. Who has the best player in the series? The Bucks in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Who has two stars that are famous for being bad in the playoffs? The Raptors in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Consider this crazy stat that The Ringer unearthed:

…of the 261 players who have attempted at least 500 shots in the playoffs since the NBA adopted the 3-point line in 1979, Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have two of the 17 worst effective field goal percentages.

And we didn’t see this coming? Yeah, I guess we just forgot about all that.

The Raptors seemed like a better team this year. Their offense was much better this year. They traded for Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker who are defensive stoppers. Cory Joseph was a solid pick-up and Jonas Valanciunas should be a match-up nightmare for Milwaukee. It seemed like it was finally time for them to exorcise those playoff demons.

The Bucks aren’t some great team. Lowry and DeRozan are being outplayed by Matthew Dellavedova and Malcolm Brogdon. We haven’t even seen a crazy Playoff Giannis game where he shows how much of a Freak he is. The Raptors just aren’t showing up and the Bucks are. The Raptors got absolutely destroyed last night in a way that one of the top three teams in the East should never get destroyed. Maybe they just aren’t a playoff team. Maybe Dwayne Casey isn’t a good coach. The signs have been there for years.

No matter what happens this is the end for them.

 

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Western Conference Playoff Picture

The Eastern Conference will come down to the last game of the season before it is all set in stone, but right now the playoff picture in the Western Conference is all locked up except for who finishes four/five. Let’s take a quick look at what we’ll be seeing in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (8) Portland Trailblazers

This won’t be like last season’s second round match-up, that’s for sure. Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson should all be healthy going into this one and this could be a first round sweep.

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I’m slightly interested in seeing how Jusuf Nurkic matches up with Draymond and if that can cause problems for them. I don’t think that will swing the series or anything, it’s going to be a sweep, but that could provide a blueprint for later rounds. I guess Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum might be able to steal one game. I doubt it though.

(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies

Death. Taxes. Spurs and Grizzlies in the playoffs.

This should stylistically be the complete opposite of Warriors vs. Blazers. There will be grit and animosity throughout this series. This series is a weird one because the Spurs are clearly the better team, but the Grizzlies have probably the second and third best players in the series. Kawhi Leonard is the best, but after him I would take Marc Gasol and Mike Conley over any other player on San Antonio. Which reminds me, how awesome will be it be Marc Gasol and Pau Gasol face off? That should be great.

That said, the Spurs are the Spurs for a reason. They get the most out of everybody and are well coached. I could see Memphis maybe stealing a game or two, but this should be a roll for the Spurs. The old guys Tony Parker, Gasol and Manu Ginobili shouldn’t look that old with the pace being slower and that benefits San Antonio in a major way.

(3) Houston Rockets vs. (6) Oklahoma City Thunder

This one is going to be fun with each game on national television. Russell Westbrook has been the star of the 2017 season and he’ll need to unleash all of his powers for his team to possibly have a chance in this series. It would be nice if we got a Steven Adams that resembled the guy we saw in last year’s playoffs. That could really make this interesting, but it seems more likely that he, Victor Oladipo, Doug McDermott and Enes Kanter will take a supporting role. This series will be all about Westrbook….

And James Harden. The difference in this series should be Harden’s willingness to share the ball and his trust in his teammates. That’s something that Westrbook doesn’t always have (for good and bad), but Harden has shown the ability to feed Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson for open threes all season and hopefully that continues in the playoffs. This could be a big series for Clint Capela as he’ll have his hands full down low. I see this series going five or six games, but the Rockets should move on.

(4/5) Utah Jazz vs. (4/5) Los Angeles Clippers

This could be the best series in the West. These two teams have the exact same record at the moment with the Clippers holding the tiebreaker. Their last game of the season is against the Sacramento Kings so it feels like they’ll get the four seed.

This should be a great series as it is two teams on complete opposite ends of the spectrum. This could be the last ride of the DeAndre Jordan, Chris Paul, JJ Reddick and Blake Griffin led Clippers team while this is the first of hopefully many Utah Jazz playoff runs led by Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert. (Of course, free agency may have something to say about that.)

Home court make a big difference in this one as I can easily see this series going seven games. The Gobert-Jordan match-up should be great as both will need to be block machines for their teams. I wouldn’t underrate the George Hill on Paul match-up either. Hill may be one of the most underrated point guards out there and he’ll be key to this series.

To me, this series comes down to Gordon Hayward versus Blake Griffin. This will be the first playoff appearance for Hayward and he’ll need to up his game for the Jazz to have a chance. Blake Griffin, of course, could take over this series but he hasn’t looked like himself for much of the season. If he gets his game back, I like the Clippers. Either way, this should be a close one.

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