Down But Not Out: Ranking Best Long-Shot NBA Playoff Bets
Each of the NBA’s mid-series playoff prices come via Bovada and are accurate as of Monday, May 21. There are currently two “underdogs,” in the Cleveland Cavaliers and Houston Rockets. We’ll present them in order of increasing likelihood they complete the come-from-behind victory, while also delivering our prediction for what will ultimately happen to end the best-of-seven set.
2. Houston Rockets (+635)
The Situation: Trailing Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals 2-1
These Houston Rockets odds are appealing for two reasons. First and foremost, a better than 6-1 return on a team that isn’t trailing 3-1 is pretty darn good—particularly when that squad won more games in the regular season than any other outfit in the NBA.
Now, of course, is bout the time when we would usually cite the Golden State Warriors are really the Association’s top team. They went at approximately 75 percent speed for most of the year, and they’re only now just rounding into their typical juggernaut form. They’ve earned more than the benefit of the doubt.
But special circumstances call for something of a re-evaluation. The Warriors just received word that Andre Iguodala, one of their very best perimeter defenders, won’t partake in Game 4 while recovering from a left knee contusion he suffered at the end of Game 3.
This news comes as a fairly big deal, even though the on-off splits don’t necessarily support it. Golden State is outscoring opponents by 4.3 points per 100 possessions when Iguodala is in the game for this series, compared to a whopping 27.3 when he’s off. But there is a lot of noise in those numbers—namely his time within the Warriors’ vaunted “Hamptons Five” lineup, a five-man amalgam of Iguodala, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.
That combination is typically death for opponents. Against the Rockets, though, they’ve struggled, posting a net rating south of 3.5 through the first three games. And it was even lower than that, before Game 3, which the Warriors won by 41 points.
So, yes, they can survive without Iguodala. Curry looks to be out of his shooting slump after an 18-point third quarter in Game 3, and the Warriors can offset some of Iggy’s absence by sliding Green back to the 4 and slotting Kevon Looney at the 5.
Still, to write off Iguodala’s absence as minor would be a mistake. He helps shape the Warriors identity. Green, Durant and Thompson all play equal or bigger roles, but having Iguodala allows them to switch even more liberally while hiding Curry on pretty much anyone they see fit. Remove him from the equation, and the Rockets can play Clint Capela at the 5 without hesitation or use PJ Tucker at the 5 without the Warriors having an adequate counter.
Here’s the thing, though: Golden State is a plus-32 in this series despite losing Game 2 by 22 points. That’s something of a red flag. So, too, is the erratic play of Chris Paul and James Harden, both of whom were relative no-shows in Game 3. Harden, in fact, has been struggling to shoot through each of the past two contests. Going up against a defense that doesn’t have Iguodala will make their lives easier, but not by the much.
Revisit the Rockets’ odds if they win Game 4. They should still be underdogs if that happens. For now, however, it’s best to stay away. The Warriors are the superior team, and they’re showing why.
Series Prediction: Warriors in 5
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (-103)
The Situation: Trailing Boston Celtics 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals
Seldom, if ever, does a series underdog lay negative odds. They’re typically heavy lightweights, as we’re seeing with Rockets. But this is an atypical situation, because it includes LeBron James.
Not only have the Cleveland Cavaliers been to three straight NBA Finals, but LeBron himself is working on seven consecutive appearances. That means he hasn’t lost an Eastern Conference playoff series since 2010, during his first go-round in Cleveland. To pick against him feels weird, and so most people aren’t inclined to do it.
Yes, teams that jump out to 2-0 series leads in best-of-seven affairs, as the Celtics did, go on to win the ultimate battle more than 94 percent of the time, according to WhoWins.com. But sportsbooks aren’t supposed to play the odds, per see. They’re supposed to come up with lines and bets that will earn them the most amount of money possible. And making a LeBron James team a noticeable underdog doesn’t qualify as a good decision on their part. The market would be flooded with Cavs picks, and while they’d be rolling in it should the Celtics go on to make the NBA Finals, the risk of LeBron, the best player of all time, turning those odds to mush far outweigh the potential benefits.
Game 3 was a shining example of why. The Celtics didn’t play well, but the Cavaliers looked like an actual basketball team. LeBron received help from his supporting cast for a change: Kevin Love was on point; J.R. Smith actually played good defense; George Hill learned he’s allowed to shoot more than four times per game; and head coach Tyronn Lue did a much better job futzing and fiddling with his rotation, electing to throw out a traditional center—either Larry Nance Jr. or Tristan Thompson—whenever Al Horford was on the court.
Plus, certain aspects of the Cavaliers’ struggles were never going to hold. They canned under 31 percent of their wide-open threes—defined as looks from beyond the arc the come when the closest defender is more than six feet away—through the first two tilts of this matchup. That doesn’t happen. It will normalize even further, and as we saw in the second-round against the Toronto Raptors, the Cavaliers are a completely different beast when they’re long balls are falling and LeBron doesn’t have to go it completely alone.
Last but not the least, the Celtics are finally starting to show cracks. Their biggest potential downfall has always been the absence of a tried and true from-scratch shot creator. They lost their two best to injury in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. And while they’ve subsisted on a committee-style offense for quite some time, there will be nights, like in Game 2, when Jaylen Brown cannot get going, Al Horford doesn’t attempt a shot in the first quarter and Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris both struggle to get buckets. The Celtics have been a weaker team on the road all playoffs, so they’re not perfect. The Cavaliers are just dysfunctional.
Truthfully, it would be more lucrative if you were able to lay a wager on them while they’re in a 3-0 or 3-1 series hole. They’re much less likely to emerge from such situations with a series win, but you’re also more likely to be able to capitalize on lucrative odds.
In the meantime, you can net borderline even money for putting your faith in LeBron James. And as we’ve learned over the past seven years, that’s never a bad idea before the NBA Finals.
Series Prediction: Cavaliers in 7
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