With the NBA play-in tournament completed, we’re onto the first round of the NBA playoffs this weekend.

I always like this weekend every year as we have quadrupleheaders on both Saturday and Sunday and get to see all of the series and how the teams are matching up, especially without having to worry about team motivation or players taking “load management” days off, etc.


As I go through my “takes” on each first-round series, I’m not going to recommend any futures to win the NBA Finals as we usually see the top contenders/seeds advance out of each round as the cream usually rises to the top in these seven-game series. We’ve felt for years that the best way to make money over the years with our “dog-or-pass” plays in the NBA playoffs is to go game by game and pick our spots (which will be highlighted below).
Having said that (Curb Your Enthusiasm reference as that great series came to an end, even poking fun at how the Seinfeld finale missed the mark), if you saw my column here after the NBA All-Star Break, you know I’m holding futures on the Cavaliers to win the title at 20-1 and the Timberwolves to win the Western Conference at 8-1 and the NBA Finals at 18-1, so I guess those are my de facto recommendations if you want to bet futures now.

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Note: the futures re-opened late Friday night with the Timberwolves at 20-1 to win the title and the Cavaliers ballooning to 60-1, so better prices now than when I bet them.

However, we always advise at this point to just roll over each series price to get a bigger playoff, plus the option to pull back profits or take your money and run if a team survives a round but loses a key player.

So, without further ado, let’s get to the eight first-round series starting with the four games on Saturday.

Philadelphia 76ers vs. New York Knicks

The 76ers had to win their play-in tournament game on Wednesday night against the Heat to earn the Eastern Conference’s No. 7 seed, but they’ve been so hot (closing the regular season on an eight-game winning streak, plus the play-in win) that some books even opened them as favorites in this series). In fact, if you go by those books, the Knicks would be just the second No. 2 seed since 1988 to be series underdogs in the opening round, though the Westgate SuperBook here in Vegas had it at pick-’em at -110 on each side late Friday night while Circa Sports was dealing the Knicks as -124 series faves. Any way you look at it, this should be a coin-flip of a series, and I’ll be on the 76ers in any game they’re underdogs. The Game 1 line has them at +2.5 at all Vegas books as of late Friday night, so put me down for my first best of the postseason.
Expected Best Bets: 76ers +2.5 in Saturday’s Game 1 and as dogs in any game in the series.

Orlando Magic vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers were my top value pick at the All-Star Break as they were sitting with the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference at 36-17, but they were not the same team the rest of the regular season as they went just 12-17 SU and 10-19 ATS (though that wasn’t too surprising as they started to go off as favorites more after their strong start). They held on to get home-court advantage as the East’s No. 4 seed against No. Orlando. However, with Donovan Mitchell healthy, I still think Cleveland is the superior team and will at least get out of this round. I’m not looking to back the Magic as underdogs in any game here (no, not even as a hedge for those wondering). In fact, I’m hoping we get the Cavs as road underdogs when the series moves to Orlando.
Expected Best Bets: Cavaliers plus points in Games 3 and 4 (and 6, if necessary).

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Denver Nuggets

Just like last year, the Lakers are going to have their hands full against the Nuggets, who unceremoniously swept them out of the playoffs on the way to winning the title. So, even though the Lakers closed the season on an 11-4 run, this is a tough draw against the defending champs. However, as much as I like to dog LeBron James in the GOAT debate vs. Michael Jordan (my first child was named Jordyn), I haven’t forgotten that James and the Lakers were in all four of those games last year and I expect them to at least post a winning ATS record in this series to make us some money. In Saturday’s Game 1, they’re getting +7, and that’s too many points to pass up.
Expected Best Bets: Lakers +7 in Saturday’s Game 1 and anytime as dogs in the series.

Phoenix Suns vs. Minnesota Timberwolves

As mentioned above, the Timberwolves were my top value play in the Western Conference at the All-Star Break, and I’m not giving up on them yet, even though the Suns are a live dog here (especially after beating Minnesota in the regular-season finale when both teams had something to play for). In fact, some readers might think I should be hedging by taking the Suns here, but it’s too early for me to do that with my futures bet. In fact, with the T-Wolves only being favored by 1.5 points at home in Game 1 (and probably right around there for Game 2), we’re probably going to get them as decent road underdogs in Games 3 and 4 in Phoenix.
Expected Best Bets: Timberwolves plus points in Games 3 and 5 (and Game 6, if necessary).

Miami Heat vs. Boston Celtics

The Heat comes into Sunday’s Game 1 after surviving an elimination game against the Bulls in Chicago. This is a tough turnaround against a Boston team that has been resting. The bigger obstacle for Miami is that Jimmy Butler suffered a sprained MLB in his right knee in the first quarter of Wednesday’s play-in game and the original prognosis is he’s going to miss “several weeks.” We’ll see if he’s able to “pull a Willis Reed,” but barring that, I’m not sure I’m going to be looking to take the Heat plus the points in any game (they opened +13.5 in Game 1, and even that’s not tempting). I’ll be watching Sunday’s game closely to see if I change my mind.
Expected Best Bets: None for now

Indiana Pacers vs. Milwaukee Bucks

There’s an interesting dynamic here with the Pacers now the -125 series favorites with the uncertainty of Milwaukee superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo (he’s out of Game 1 with his calf injury and could miss the whole series). Besides, the Pacers went 5-0 ATS against the Bucks during the regular season, including four outright upsets. This leaves me in a quandary as I was hoping to get the Pacers plus points in most of the games in this series, but they’re actually 1- to 1.5-point road favorites in Sunday’s Game 1. I’m going to pass for now. This series looks like it could lend itself to the old “zig-zag theory” (aka “loser of the last”) as you bet the straight-up loser of one game against the spread in the next, expecting the teams to alternate wins throughout the series.
Expected Best Bets: None for now

New Orleans Pelicans vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

Similar to the Heat, the Pelicans had to survive the final elimination game of the play-in tournament on Friday night as they beat the Kings 105-98. Also similar to the Heat, the Pelicans had to do it without its biggest star as Zion Williamson suffered a left hamstring strain late in Tuesday night’s loss to the Lakers and is also expected to be out at least two weeks. However, my feeling on the Pelicans without their star is much different as they’ve had to deal with Zion’s absences before and – I’m not saying they’re a better team without him – but they’re not much worse, and I’ll be on them in any game against the West’s No. 1 seed. They opened +7 in Sunday’s Game 1 and that’s more than enough for yours truly.
Expected Best Bets: Pelicans +8 in Sunday’s Game 1 and any game in series as underdogs.

Dallas Mavericks vs. Los Angeles Clippers

This is another case where we were hoping to get the lower-seeded team getting points, at least on the road, yet the Mavericks are 2-point road favorites in Sunday’s Game 1. This is because the Mavs were hotter down the stretch than the Clippers, and they’re actually -135 series chalk despite being the lower seed and not having home-court advantage (though, technically, that only really comes into play if there’s a Game 7). Having said that, if Kawhi Leonard steps up at playoff time, as we’ve seen many times in his career, we could see ourselves taking the Clippers as underdogs. I just don’t think I’ll be able to pull the trigger for Sunday’s Game 1.
Expected Best Bets: None for now, though potentially Clippers as home dogs in Game 2 and especially in Games 3 and 4 (and Game 6, if necessary) on the road.