2018 NBA Playoff Preview: Eastern Conference

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2018 NBA Playoffs Betting Preview: Eastern Conference

Welcome to the LazyBets 2018 NBA Playoffs preview!  We’ll be going series-by-series, giving you all the information you’ll need to make sharp bets designed to beat the sportsbooks.   We’ll be breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of each team, highlighting key matchups and injuries, and letting you know where we’re putting our money with our best bets for each series. Next up: the Eastern Conference.

Looking for the Western Conference?  Click here!

#1 Toronto Raptors (59-23) vs. #8 Washington Wizards (43-39)

Despite the vast difference in their regular season records, the Toronto Raptors and the Washington Wizards actually had very similar projected win totals coming into this year, with the Wizards actually having a higher expected win total in the preseason.   With that in mind, are these teams closer in overall strength than their records would suggest?  Let’s take a closer look to find out.

When Toronto has the ball

Some thought that the Raptors would implode after yet another flame-out in the playoffs in 2017, getting swept by LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the second round.  Instead, an organization-wide shift toward a more balanced, spread out attack on offense worked wonders in 2018, leading the Raptors to a 2nd place finish in offensive rating and the top seed in the Eastern Conference.   Toronto went from 20th in the league in three point attempts in 2017 all the way up to 4th in 2018. They limited turnovers, finishing 4th in turnover rate thanks to their sure-handed primary ball handlers, Demar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.  Both Derozan and Lowry saw their usage rates decline however as Jonas Valanciunas and the strong bench unit took up a larger role in the offense - Valanciunas in particular was extremely efficient, finishing 12th in the NBA in effective field goal percentage, tied with LeBron.

Washington had an up-and-down season, and were hurt in particular by an injury to John Wall that forced him to miss half the season - even if some were wondering whether the Wiz were actually better without him.  We don’t believe that to be true, but we also don’t believe that the Wizards have the defensive ceiling to slow down the powerful Raptors attack, with or without Wall.  Washington finished right in the middle of the league in defensive rating - 15th - and they don’t have many impact defensive players that could rise to the occasion in the playoffs.  Bradley Beal and Otto Porter both have good length and size to create turnovers, but the Raptors excel at protecting the ball, as we noted earlier. Marcin Gortat has been a solid centerpiece of Wizards defenses in the past, but in his age 34 season he may no longer have the foot speed to switch out on pick-and-rolls with the Raptors guards.  We see the Raptors scoring with ease in this series.

When Washington has the ball

The Wizards’ best chance in this series is to win high scoring games against the Raptors - their offense finished a mediocre 14th in the NBA, but that was without their main shot creator in Wall for half the year.  Beal took on a much heavier load this year, and it did damage to his efficiency - his effective field goal percentage dropped from an outstanding .604 in 2017 to a less spectacular .564 in 2018.  Otto Porter remained one of the league’s most effective three point shooters, but his attempts dipped slightly in 2018.  If Wall can create more opportunities for both Beal and Porter, they should be able to score efficiently on the Raptors defense.

That Raptors defense is no joke, however, finishing 5th overall in defensive rating.  Kyle Lowry has had a reputation as a strong defensive point guard, and it will be interesting to see how much he can slow a still-recovering Wall.  Lowry played 5 minutes less per game this year in an attempt to keep him fresh for the playoffs; we’ll see how effective that strategy was in this series.  Serge Ibaka and Jakob Poeltl both finished in the top 20 in blocks, while Valanciunas finished 6th in total rebound rate - the Raptors should have the edge inside on defense.

Best Bet and Series Prediction

This Raptors team has a different feel than those in the past, as they’re more well-rounded and have a more modern offense than previous versions.  Their terrible record in game 1s is scary, as is the shooting potential of Bradley Beal and Otto Porter.  However, this Raptors team has an edge in talent, health, and depth over the Wizards, and we’d be surprised to see this one go the distance.  The Raptors are only -600 at Bovada to win this series - compare that to the Western Conference 1-8 matchup where the Rockets are -2100. We think that there’s value there, and we trust the new look Raptors enough to lay the -600 with confidence.

Prediction: Raptors in 5.

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Looking for the Western Conference?  Click here!

#2 Boston Celtics (55-27) vs. #7 Milwaukee Bucks (44-38)

Coaching is the only explanation for why these two teams ended up where they did in the Eastern Conference seedings.  Brad Stevens coached the hell out of a injury-plagued Boston team, getting them to the 2nd seed despite losing Gordon Hayward in the opening game and losing Kyrie Irving with about 20 games remaining.  Former Bucks coach Jason Kidd and current interim coach Joe Prunty have been unable to unlock the talent on the Bucks, finishing a mere 6 games over .500 despite having one of the game’s great players and a solid supporting cast.  Will the Bucks’ talent be enough to overcome Stevens and the Celtics’ injury plagued roster? Let’s dive into the numbers to find out.

When Boston has the ball

Despite having one of the great finishing guards in basketball in Irving for most of the season, the Celtics were remarkably average on offense - finishing 18th in the NBA in offensive rating.  Young players like rookie Jayson Tatum, second-year pro Jaylen Brown and third-year pro Terry Rozier were forced into expanded roles this season with due to the bevy of injuries, and while they all fared well enough - Tatum in particular looks like a future star - none of them are true, front-line offensive weapons that are crucial to have in the postseason.  Al Horford is a solid cog in a good offense, but the days of asking him to generate good looks on his own are probably a thing of the past.

The Bucks are not a defensive stalwart by any means, finishing 19th in defensive rating for the year despite the great length of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and other supporting cast members like John Henson and Tony Snell.  Much of the blame has been put on the ultra-aggressive trapping concepts implemented by Kidd, which did lead to the Bucks finish 2nd in opponent turnover rate but did not result in overall defensive success. However, it’s easy to see these aggressive concepts working against less experienced ball handlers like Tatum and Rozier.  Giannis can guard any position 1-5, so if any Celtic gets it going in this series, look for the Greek Freak to get the assignment to cool them down. I can envision the Celtics having a very difficult time scoring in this series, unless Stevens has something special up his sleeve.

When Milwaukee has the ball

This side of the ball is where both teams shined in 2018, starting with the Bucks offense.  Giannis took a big leap forward on the offensive end in 2018, increasing his usage rate from 28.3% to 31.2%, good for 7th in the NBA, without sacrificing any efficiency - his effective field goal percentage stayed right in line with his 2017 figure.  The Bucks’ biggest strength on offense was their ability to get to the free throw line, led by Giannis, who finished 2nd in free throw attempts behind James Harden.  Khris Middleton rebounded from an injury plagued 2017 to play the 2nd most minutes in the NBA behind only LeBron, and he provided efficient wing scoring as he typically does.  Eric Bledsoe, acquired in an early season deal with the Suns for Greg Monroe (who we’ll also see in this series off the bench for Boston), worked well as a secondary shot creator, using his exceptional physical talents.

While Milwaukee was a strong offensive team (9th in offensive rating), the Celtics were a defensive juggernaut this season, finishing 1st overall in defensive rating.  Al Horford was the defensive coordinator on the court for the young Celtics, using his veteran savvy to guide the young Celtics into the right positions on defense. However, there are some reasons to believe the defense won’t have such an easy time in this series.  First, there may have been some luck involved in Boston’s overall ranking - teams shot an NBA worst .339 from three against the Celtics. There is certainly skill involved with running three point shooters off of good looks, but it takes a bit of luck to finish 1st overall in that category.  Also, their one weakness may play to the Bucks’ strengths - the Celtics finished 16th in opponent free throw rate. Giannis is a master of drawing fouls - if he is able to get say, Al Horford in foul trouble on a consistent basis, the Celtics could be out of sorts on that end with so many young players on the court.

Best Bet and Series Prediction

While Brad Stevens’ ability to get the most out of his players cannot be undersold, we think that the Bucks’ talent should win the day despite the edge in coaching.  In the West we picked New Orleans to overcome Portland due to a breakthrough performance by Anthony Davis - we’re hoping to see a mirror image of that with Giannis in this series.  Given the chance to take the more talented team at an underdog price, we’re going to make the Bucks +155 our best bet in this series.

Prediction: Bucks in seven.

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Warriors in 4?  We take a look!

#3 Philadelphia 76ers (52-30) vs. #6 Miami Heat (44-38)

The Sixers were one of the biggest stories of the season, blasting through their 40 win preseason over/under by 12 games featuring talent stockpiled over years of selecting players at the top of the draft (#TrustTheProcess).  Miami was much more unheralded, grinding out the 6th seed due mostly to strong defensive fundamentals put into place by coach Erik Spoelstra. The health of star Sixers center Joel Embiid is in question - can the Heat take advantage and make an unexpected appearance in the second round?

When Philadelphia has the ball

2018 may be most remembered in NBA history as the debut season of the Embiid-Simmons era in Philly, which could absolutely dominate the NBA for seasons to come.  Embiid’s rare ability to be a force inside while stretching the defense from three, along with Simmons’ elite-level court vision and size make these two a fearsome combination.  That’s why Embiid’s injury is so unfortunate - if Embiid can’t return, the ceiling of this team is lowered by quite a bit. Simmons will be asked to carry the load on offense for as long as Embiid is out, and it may work out fine - Simmons is surrounded by solid talent in JJ Redick, Robert Covington and Dario Saric, each of whom can fill it up from three.  However, this team is prone to turnovers - they finished dead last in turnover rate, as you might expect from a team led by young players.

Miami may not have a ton of offensive talent, but they do appear to have the right kind of defenders to take advantage of the turnover-happy Sixers offense.   Josh Richardson, James Johnson and Justise Winslow give the Heat three legitimate options to throw at Simmons, each of whom is long and persistent on D. The Sixers were one of the best offensive rebounding teams in basketball (3rd in offensive rebound rate), but without Embiid, the Heat may have the advantage on that end - Hassan Whiteside remains a beast on the boards, and the Heat finished 6th overall in defensive rebounding rate.  Simmons will get a crash course in playoff basketball when facing this Heat defense - it will be fascinating to see how he fares.

When Miami has the ball

As we mentioned, the Heat do not have a ton of offensive talent.  Goran Dragic would be better suited as a secondary creator, but he has had to shoulder most of the offensive load this season.  Heat legend Dwayne Wade was acquired from the Cavaliers at the trade deadline, but the now 36-year-old Wade is no longer anywhere close to efficient, despite playing as if he still is - his 30.6% usage rate is by far the highest on the Heat, despite an atrocious .427 effective field goal percentage.  The saving grace for this offense has been the three point shooting of specialist Wayne Ellington and stretch big Kelly Olynyk, both of whom are well above average from deep.

Even without Defensive Player of the Year candidate Joel Embiid, this Sixers team is still loaded with defensive ability, which has been the underrated part of Philly’s success this season.  Simmons and Covington provide excellent perimeter defense, closing out on shooters and preventing good looks - Philly finished 1st overall in opponent’s effective field goal percentage, aided by their 2nd overall rank in opponent three point percentage.  The loss of Embiid will hurt, but Miami is still going to struggle to score in this series unless Dwyane Wade can seriously turn back the clock.

Best Bet and Series Prediction

This might be the toughest series to predict due to Embiid’s injury - if we see him back in Game 2, I’d expect the Sixers to finish off the Heat in 6 or less games.  If Embiid was to miss the whole series though, I could see the Heat’s defensive discipline taking a toll on the Sixers and can easily envision a Heat victory in 6 or 7 games.  However, this Sixers team still has a clear edge in talent even without Embiid, and Simmons appears to have the maturity of a much older player. We’re betting that he’s up to the challenge of leading this young Philly team past the Heat, so we’re making Philly -400 our best bet in this series.

Prediction: Sixers in six.

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#4 Cleveland Cavaliers (50-32) vs. #5 Indiana Pacers (48-34)

The Pacers were one of the NBA’s feel-good stories in 2018, outperforming their projected win total by an astonishing 18 games after getting lambasted over the Paul George trade, which ended up working out in their favor as Victor Oladipo took a giant leap into All-NBA territory.  However, it’s tempting to throw out everything that happened in the regular season and just type one word in this section: LeBron.

When Cleveland has the ball

LeBron James had yet another spectacular season at the forefront of the Cavs offense - he led the NBA in minutes played and points scored, finishing 2nd in assists and 3rd in PER, behind only James Harden and Anthony Davis.   It was a good thing that he was able to carry that load, because there is no real secondary shot creator on this team - of all the players remaining on the Cavs after their midseason shake up, George Hill leads non-LeBron Cavs with a mere 2.8 assists per game.  However, that might just be how LeBron likes it - the “four shooters and LeBron” offense is still one of the most potent offenses in basketball.  Kevin Love is an excellent catch and shoot player, having altered his game to fit in with LeBron, and he should be healthy for the playoffs despite missing 23 games in the regular season.  The Cavs finished 5th in offensive rating in the regular season, and it should only improve as LeBron dials in his attention for the playoffs.

The Pacers aren’t a bad defensive team - they finished 13th in defensive rating, and 2nd overall in opponent turnover rate, thanks mostly to Victor Oladipo, who lead the NBA in steals.  Myles Turner has turned into a solid rim protecting big man, finishing in the top 5 in block rate. However, the only question that matters is this: who do the Pacers have to slow down LeBron?  Bojan Bogdanovic? Thaddeus Young? Oladipo doesn’t have the size and probably wouldn’t have the energy to chase LeBron around and lead the team on offense. Maybe Lance Stephenson can blow in LeBron’s ear again.  Whatever they decide, it seems futile - the Cavs should be able to score at will in this series.

When Indiana has the ball

Since the Pacers don’t appear to have a chance on defense, their only chance in this series will come from their offense, which needs to be nearly flawless.  The Pacers do a great job of taking care of the ball, ranking 6th in turnover rate. They will need to be even better while LeBron is on the court, as he thrives on transition opportunities.  As mentioned, Victor Oladipo was spectacular this season, finishing in the top 10 in points per game while remaining efficient, at a solid .537 effective field goal percentage, highest of his career.  He’ll need to be even better in this series. Bogdanovic, Turner, and Collison all provided efficient scoring this season - they’ll need to be lights out in this series to have a chance.

The Pacers may have a chance at offensive greatness in this series, as the Cavaliers were truly horrible on defense during the regular season, finishing ahead of only the tanking Phoenix Suns in defensive rating.  LeBron’s defensive partner in crime over the past few years, Tristan Thompson, seems to be lost in the rotation this year, working as a third big man behind Kevin Love and Larry Nance. Other than Thompson, there really isn’t much defensive talent on this team - George Hill isn’t the defender he once was, and regulars JR Smith, Rodney Hood and Jeff Green have never been lauded for their defense.  LeBron has been a defensive monster in the past, but that part of his career appears to be behind him.  While he may be able to bring just enough intensity to make an impact on Indiana’s middling offense, the Cavs defense may turn out to be their downfall in later rounds.

Best Bet and Series Prediction

Indiana should be proud of their success this season, and excited about their future - a core of Oladipo, Turner, and Domantas Sabonis is a great foundation going forward.  However, we’re still living in the era of LeBron, and while he’s still operating close to his peak, we can’t pick against him - especially in the first round. We could see Indiana stealing a game - Cavs in 5 would be the bet if we could find that prop somewhere - but for now we’ll invest in Cavaliers -750 to win the series and feel very confident that we’ll be getting our money back, plus a little extra.

Prediction: Cavaliers in five.

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