Finally, we are about to witness NBA games that actually matter.
There will be no load management unless a player has a serious injury. There will be no funky rotations in hopes to maximize NBA draft lottery odds or simply hold back from the opposing team. There will be no question on whether each team will feel motivated enough to play hard.
That’s because the NBA playoffs start on Saturday. Though none of these games will dictate everything as a single elimination tournament would, the competitiveness will still reach another level. The first slate of games vary in talent level and intrigue. But each of them presents unique storylines.
Below is a primer on what to look for in Game 1 for four playoff series beginning on Saturday, with all the lines presented by Betfred Sportsbook.
Reminder - you can bet $50 on any game, and get up to $1,111 in free bets courtesy of Betfred.
Now, to the picks:
Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers (1 pm ET, ESPN)
Spread: Philadelphia (-8.5)
This series would have been more compelling a year ago. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving would have exerted their scoring dominance. James Harden would have tried to show up his former team. Joel Embiid would have talked trash with Ben Simmons, whom Sixers fans would have been booed every waking second.
But this year? This might be a yawner. Brooklyn dealt Durant joined another championship-contending team (Phoenix). The Nets traded Irving to his latest team that self-destructed (Dallas; in fairness more had to do with a faulty roster than Irving’s presence). Simmons has been sidelined with yet another injury. Embiid seems motivated to prove worthy of a possible regular-season MVP trophy. Harden remains thirsty to score. But the Sixers’ stars won’t feel as motivated for this one.
In fairness, the Nets remain respectable. They leaned on the strong culture and team development that predated the Durant and Irving arrivals. So, the Nets won’t be a pushover. Mikal Bridges has become dependable both for his durability and defensive wing presence. Spencer Dinwiddie remains a solid player, regardless of what Kyle Kuzma says as their share their feud openly on social media. And Cam Johnson is another stellar player the Nets acquired as part of the Durant trade.
Still, Embiid and Harden have become an unstoppable duo. Embiid has led the NBA in points per game (33.1). Harden has led the NBA in assists per game (10.7). Together, they have brought out the best in each other. Embiid has complemented his paint dominance with improved outside shooting and passing. Harden has worked on fluid ball movement instead of hunting for his own shot. Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris have provided additional scoring and defensive punch.
Final score prediction: 76ers 116, Nets 101
Betting Pick: Philadelphia (-8.5)
Atlanta Hawks at Boston Celtics (3:30 pm ET, ESPN)
Spread: Boston (-9)
This will be a matchup between one of the NBA’s deepest teams (Celtics) and a flawed team that boasts a fascinating and unpredictable star (Hawks’ Trae Young). Atlanta may have upset the Miami Heat in the NBA play-in tournament. But that won’t carry over against a Celtics team that appears primed to return to the NBA Finals.
Boston has two dominant scorers that have learned how to coexist (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown). Boston boasts an elite perimeter defender (Marcus Smart) and rim protector (Robert Williams III). And they have a dependable veteran point guard (Malcolm Brogdon) and forward (Al Horford) that can fill in the gaps. Boston first-year coach Joe Mazzulla lacks any playoff experience, but he has proven equipped to manage a star-laden roster seamlessly following Ime Udoka’s tumultuous exit.
What do the Hawks have to match that? In fairness, Atlanta doesn’t just revolve around Young’s elite scoring, inconsistent defense and questionable leadership. Newly hired Hawks coach Quin Snyder has brought more accountability that could have greater long-term effects next season. Dejounte Murray, De’Andre Hunter and Bogdan Bogdanović are dynamic scorers. And John Collins and Clint Capela are decent rim protectors. That depth cannot match Boston’s, though.
The Celtics also have more disciplined championship habits with superior effort and team chemistry. Atlanta might have a puncher’s chance to steal a game in this series amid a possible Young scoring outburst during a let-down game. But that won’t take place in Game 1. Look for Boston to set the tone early with ensuring this first-round matchup ends quickly.
Final score prediction: Celtics 125, Hawks 110
Betting Pick: Boston (-9)
New York Knicks at Cleveland Cavaliers (6 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Spread: Cleveland (-5.5)
This might be one of the most entertaining first-round matchups. The Cavaliers have a franchise cornerstone (Donovan Mitchell), a young star (Darius Garland) and two elite big men (Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley). The Knicks have a second-tier MVP candidate (Jalen Brunson), a more polished bruiser (Julius Randle) and emerging young talent (RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley). Both the Cavs (Caris LeVert, Isaac Okoro, Cedi Osman) and the Knicks (Josh Hart, Obi Toppin, Cam Reddish) are loaded with wings. Both teams could have breakout offensive performances. Then again, both teams have elite defenses to prevent that from happening.
The biggest question mark in this series points to Randle, who has missed the past five games with a sprained left ankle. Although the Knicks have not yet determined his availability, expect Randle to experience hiccups with his rust, timing and conditioning. Not only does Randle’s tenuous health leave the Knicks without a threat that can dominate downhill, playmake and fuel the team’s competitive juices. Randle’s anticipated absence or limitations relieves the burden on Allen and Mobley, whose defensive stamina won’t take as much without Randle there to beat them up. In turn, Allen and Mobley could have more energy to produce offensively and free up some space for Mitchell and Garland to operate.
Assuming Randle returns to full form, flip a coin on the outcome of each game. For now, though, expect an either absent or limited version of Randle to start the series. Given each game will likely come down to a handful of possessions, Cleveland enters this series with some relative wiggle room.
Final score prediction: Cavaliers 109, Knicks 104
Betting Pick: New York (+5.5)
Golden State Warriors at Sacramento Kings (8:30 p.m. ET ABC)
Spread: Sacramento (-1)
Enjoy the beginning of a NorCal rivalry. Kings fans will greet Warriors forward Draymond Green with boos and cowbells after proclaiming on his podcast that he prefers meeting Sacramento in the first round. (Because of the short travel, of course!). Kings coach Mike Brown appears eager to match wits with Warriors coach Steve Kerr after serving as his lead assistant for the past six years. And the Kings’ top-ranked offense will appear motivated and capable with matching with the Warriors’ revolutionary system that is Stephen Curry.
Will those juicy storylines and trash talk actually lead to a competitive playoff series? You bet. But the Warriors’ experience will ultimately prevail. Not only have Curry, Green and Klay Thompson rounded into the championship contending version of themselves. Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins is expected to return after missing the past 25 games because of a personal matter. For a team that has struggled maintaining the defensive consistency that ensured an NBA title last season, Wiggins will help mitigate that issue even through the anticipated rust and minutes restriction.
The Kings will still score prolifically. De’Aaron Fox and Domontas Sabonis have mastered the two-man game with a combination of pick-and-rolls, postups and dribble handoffs. The Kings have a handful of veterans (Kevin Huerter, Harrison Barnes) and young players (Malik Monk, Keegan Murray) that offer additional scoring punch. But Sacramento has yet to play a lick of stellar defense. That will be a problem with Curry, Thompson, Wiggins and Jordan Poole on the floor.
Final score prediction: Warriors 120, Kings 115
Betting Pick: Golden State (+1)
Mark Medina is a veteran NBA reporter who will be contributing to Aaron Torres Online and Aaron Torres Media throughout the NBA playoffs - follow him on Twitter @MarkG_Medina
To get full odds on the entire NBA Playoffs visit Betfred Sportsbook
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