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May 23, 2019

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NBA Playoffs betting: Vegas picks and preview of Eastern Conference Finals

Giannis

ASSOCIATED PRESS

This May 8, 2019, file photo shows Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo driving past Boston Celtics’ Aron Baynes during the first half of Game 5 of a second round NBA basketball playoff series in Milwaukee.

Game 1

  • 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, TNT
  • Point Spread: Raptors plus-6.5 at Bucks
  • Moneyline: Milwaukee minus-350, Toronto plus-270
  • Total: over/under: 217.5
  • Talking Points' pick: Over 217.5

Raptors vs. Bucks exact series odds

  • Raptors in 4 — 30-to-1
  • Raptors in 5 — 16-to-1
  • Raptors in 6 — 6-to-1
  • Raptors in 7 — 9-to-1
  • Bucks in 4 — 8-to-1
  • Bucks in 5 — 3-to-1
  • Bucks in 6 — 9-to-2
  • Bucks in 7 — 7-to-2
  • Talking Points' pick — Raptors in 7 at 9-to-1

A lifelong NBA fan underwent a crisis of faith at the end of last season.

After four straight years of the same NBA Finals matchup, he lamented that the mystery, and by extension, the intrigue, was gone. The Cleveland Cavaliers wouldn’t make a fifth straight championship appearance without LeBron James, he argued, but it was just as easy to set the eventual pairing in stone.

The 2019 NBA Finals would be the Golden State Warriors versus the Boston Celtics, with an outside shot of the Philadelphia 76ers crashing the party.

He wasn’t in the minority with his cynicism.

The opening future odds at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook were similarly bleak regarding the possibilities of any other teams playing into June.

Golden State unsurprisingly opened as an astronomical minus-225 (risking $2.25 to win $1) favorite to win the Western Conference, but the numbers implied the Eastern Conference was just as predictable. Boston was minus-175 with Philadelphia at 2-to-1, making for an implied probability of more than 75 percent that one of the two teams reached the finals.

That’s obviously not going to happen.

It’s the latest reminder that there’s more annual parity in the NBA than malcontents would like to admit. Despite having James, the Cavaliers were a surprise Eastern Conference representative a year ago — a No. 4 seed that barely had a positive point differential and was historically poor against the spread during the regular season — and it’s imminent that another unforeseen franchise will get there this season.

Few saw the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors as conference champions at the start of last offseason. The latter was a distant fourth choice to win the East at 4-to-1, while the former was 18-to-1.

They picked up steam going into the season — the Raptors because of the acquisition of Kawhi Leonard and the Bucks through the hope that new coach Mike Budenholzer would implement a system more suited to the teams’ strength — but Toronto was still plus-275 (risking $1 to win $2.75) with Milwaukee at 14-to-1.

Those prices continued to decline as both teams demonstrated they were a cut above the rest throughout the season. The gap that most assumed would exist between Boston, Philadelphia and the rest of the eastern conference actually manifested itself in a drop between Milwaukee, Toronto and everyone else.

The Raptors and Bucks comfortably posted the East’s best net rating — a team’s average point differential over 100 possessions — in the regular season and have only expanded their supremacy in the playoffs. They’re first and second in the league currently, with Milwaukee at 15.2 and Toronto at 8.1

This is notable because it illustrates how much a step-up in competition both teams will be for each other — especially offensively. Boston and Philadelphia never ultimately reached their planned pinnacles because of fatal offensive flaws.

The 76ers struggled with their spacing all year, while the Celtics were hampered by their tendency to rely on isolation. Milwaukee and Toronto play with much smoother, modern styles.

Both, of course, center their attacks around a superstar.

Expect plenty of props to be available on the output of the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo and Leonard. Antetokounmpo will likely be rewarded his first MVP trophy for his regular-season performance, but Leonard is probably outpacing him in the playoffs.

Leonard is averaging 31.8 points per game, second behind only Kevin Durant, on an unbelievable .539 shooting percentage.

A series like this can often come down to the best player, and there’s a case to be made on both sides.

The majority of bettors aren’t wanting to stray from the Bucks, though, and it’s easy to see why. Milwaukee has been the league’s most profitable bet all season, supplementing a 47-31-1 against the spread showing in the regular season by going 8-1 versus the number in the playoffs.

Toronto’s postseason run has been sketchier. Beyond the immediately iconic Leonard buzzer-beater to get past the 76ers, the Raptors have only gone 6-6 against the spread.

Out of the final four teams, they’ve been the most commonly bet-against side in the playoffs and that appears to be holding true in the current futures market. At William Hill sports books, Milwaukee has taken 80 percent of the action in the series as a minus-290 favorite with the Raptors coming back at plus-245.

Milwaukee is as high as a minus-330 favorite to advance elsewhere in town.

That’s a little excessive.

The better-seeded team has won every Eastern Conference playoff series so far, but that doesn’t mean the trend is destined to continue. Considering perception at the start of the season, the Bucks and Raptors have disproven the nation that everything in the NBA might as well be predetermined just by getting this far.

There’s still magic left in the NBA.

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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