First Round Previews

First Round Previews

Celtics-Hawks preview
By Brian Edwards
VegasInsider.com

**No. 1 Boston vs. No. 8 Atlanta**

Series Price: Boston -4,000  Atlanta +3,000

Series Format: 2-2-1-1-1

Skinny:

Boston (65-16 straight up, 51-28 against the spread) has enjoyed a dominant season thanks to the off-season acquisitions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, who have teamed with Paul Pierce to give the team its best trio since the days of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish. The Celtics swept three meetings from the Hawks this year, including last Saturday's 99-89 road win with Garnett, Allen and Pierce sitting out the fourth quarter since the No. 1 seed was already clinched.

But this squad has been about more than the Big Three. Doc Rivers has done an outstanding job of getting this team to play defense. In fact, Boston leads the NBA in scoring defense, allowing just 90.2 points per game.

The role players have blended in beautifully (remember, the Celtics had to give up a slew of players, including Al Jefferson, to acquire KG). Kendrick Perkins is a beast on the boards, Rajon Rondo makes plays galore, James Posey is a lockdown defender with a championship resume and Eddie House can knock down timely jumpers from the perimeter.

But as we move into the post-season, I think the most vital role player is Sam Cassell, who was recently signed after the Clippers let him go. Cassell loves to take and make big shots at crunch time and like Posey, he brings rings (two from his days with The Dream in Houston) to the table. And he's a perfect mentor for Rondo.

Atlanta (37-44 SU, 37-43-1 ATS) won the eighth slot in the East only by process of elimination. Nevertheless, the Hawks ended the NBA's longest post-season drought and optimism is high with a core nucleus of two-time All-Star Joe Johnson, Mike Bibby, Al Horford, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Josh Childress.

With that said, depth (or a lack thereof) is an issue. When Horford gets into foul trouble, there's a major falloff with Zaza Pachulia coming off the bench. Mike Woodson hasn't played Acie Law, who has been bothered by a sprained wrist, much in recent weeks, opting to go with Childress as the back-up point.

Speaking of Woodson, there's another glaring weakness. His substitution patterns are mind-boggling at times, and he totes one of the worst coaching records in league history.

Gambling Notes:

Atlanta is 18-26 ATS as an underdog this year, 3-3 ATS as a double-digit 'dog. The 'over' is on a 12-5 run for the Hawks, who saw the 'over' go 23-18 in their home games this season.

Boston is 13-12-1 ATS as a double-digit 'chalk,' but the Celtics have taken the cash in six straight such situations. The 'under' is on a 13-7 run for Rivers' club.

Outlook:

Don't expect this series to resemble the classic showdown of 20 years ago. During the 1988 Eastern Conference semifinals, Boston jumped out to a 2-0 advantage before the series moved to the Omni in Atlanta. I was in the stands for Games 3 and 4 when the Hawks worked their way back into the series with back-to-back home wins behind the sensational play of Dominique Wilkins and the hot shooting of Randy Whitman (who, by the way, was one of the best catch-and-shoot gunners in NBA history).

In Game 5 back at Boston Garden, Atlanta snapped a 13-game losing streak in the facility with a stunning 112-104 victory. However, the Celtics answered in Game 6 to force a Game 7 that turned into one of the best in league annals. 'Nique did everything in his power to will his team to victory, making 19-of-24 shots en route to a 47-point effort.
   
But Mike Fratello's squad had one problem and his name was Bird. The Indiana State product made 9-of-10 shots in the final stanza and simply wouldn't allow his team to lose, as the Celtics captured a 118-116 victory.

Back to the present, where there's no reason to believe this series will go beyond five games (if that). Atlanta hasn't made the playoffs since the strike-shortened 1999 campaign, so its playoff experience beyond Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby is completely non-existent.

Boston hasn't exactly been a post-season fixture lately, but Garnett and Allen have loads of playoff experience from KG's days with the T-wolves and Allen's time with both the Sonics and Bucks.

Future Advice: I give the Hawks no shot whatsoever to do what only the Nuggets (in '94 over the Sonics), Knicks (think Allan Houston's buzzer beater in Game 7 at Miami) and Warriors (last year over Mavs) have done, and that's beat a No. 1 seed in the first round. They have a shot in their home games, but Atlanta would have to play near-perfect basketball to steal a game in Beantown.

I think Johnson, Bibby and Smith will lead Atlanta to one win at home, but look for the Celtics to send the Hawks packing with a blowout win in Game 5.

**B.E.'s Bonus Nuggets**

--When Boston won Game 6 at the Omni in '88 after Cliff Levingston missed a running left hook in the waning moments, the media asked Bird about Atlanta's chances in Game 7 at Boston Garden. In vintage Bird form, he said, "That's not going to happen. They might as well forget it."

--The point guard on Atlanta's '88 squad that pushed the Celtics to the brink? That would be current Boston head coach Doc Rivers.

--The backcourt for that '88 Celtics squad? Not a bad combo at all in the late Dennis Johnson and current Celtics GM Danny Ainge.

--Not that it relates to this first-round series, but it's worth noting that Boston posted a 25-5 record against Western Conference foes this season.

--Boston will play the Cavs-Wizards winner in the East semifinals.

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Re: First Round Previews

Spurs-Suns preview
By Chris David
VegasInsider.com

**No. 3 San Antonio vs. No. 6 Phoenix**

Series Price: San Antonio -160 Phoenix +150

Series Format: San Antonio, 2-2-1-1-1

Skinny:

Easily the best first round matchup of the eight opening series and could be the most exciting of the postseason, considering what transpired last year in the playoffs. For those of you who forget the drama, let's recap.

The Suns and Spurs were about to be knotted 2-2 in the conference semifinals when Robert Horry decked Steve Nash in Game 4. Phoenix won but during the skirmish, the Suns' Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were both handed a one-game suspension for stepping on the court during the melee. Even though Game 5 was in the desert, the Spurs wound up wining on the road and eventually taking Game 6. The rest is history and San Antonio went on to win the NBA Finals in four games over Cleveland.

Fast forward to this year and a lot has changed. Phoenix bounced back this season by taking three of the four regular season meetings against San Antonio, including two victories on the road. The addition of Shaquille O'Neal has been successful, especially against the Spurs. The big man held the Spurs' Tim Duncan was held to 17 and 23 points. In the first two games without Shaq in the paint, Duncan combined for 56 points.

Gambling Notes:


Total players should know that all four regular season encounters went 'under' the total. The line ranged between 196 and 203. In last year's best-of-seven battle, the total finished at 3-3. Nobody was favored by more than five points in any of the games, and we should see comparable numbers this year. The home team will be favored in every game, barring any key injuries.

The Suns have only been underdogs eight times this year, and they've gone a respectable 4-4 against the spread. Meanwhile, the Spurs have gone 5-9 ATS when tabbed underdogs, including a dismal 1-8 mark when catching 1-3 points.

The first three games in this matchup are all separated with two-day breaks, which can be good or bad. Unfortunately, the Spurs are just 4-4 straight up and 2-6 against the spread this year on two days rest. On one-day rest, both the Suns and Spurs own a solid 26-20 record against the spread.

Phoenix and San Antonio both finished the season strong, each winning seven of their final 10 games.

Outlook: Playoff basketball is all about defense and that's where the Spurs have a serious edge over the Suns. The team is holding opponents to 90.6 points per game this year, which is the best in the Western Conference and third in the NBA.

However, San Antonio's offense is nowhere close to the juggernaut of Phoenix and it's shown during the regular season. The Spurs played the Suns to their liking and still lost three of the four games, averaging 86.3 PPG. It should be noted that point guard Tony Parker did miss two of the meetings and he did average 20 PPG in the other two games.

The Spurs also have an advantage with their bench scoring, but that number is a little skewed with Manu Ginobili (19.5 PPG) getting as many minutes as starters. The Suns have become more balanced this year, with seven players averaging double digits. Shaq was a nice pick up for Phoenix, but the offseason acquisition of Grant Hill (13.1 PPG) has also been solid. Hill tweaked his groin in the last week of the regular season and is day-to-day.

Phoenix learned a lot about itself last year in its loss to San Antonio and this writer believes that head coach Mike D'Antonio will have his team ready to roll in this best-of-seven battle. This is a good Spurs team, not a great one. They've struggled at times this year, especially on the road (21-19).

Most are expecting a tight series and it could be if San Antonio makes its shots, but we're predicting the Suns in six games.

Future Advice:

Even though the Spurs have won three championships in the past five years, the team has never won back-to-back titles. In its two previous defenses, San Antonio has survived the first round but did come up short in the second round. As stated above, we like Phoenix and the extra change (+150) as an underdog is nice. Look for the champs to go home early.

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Re: First Round Previews

Previews of the eight first-round NBA playoff series
April 17, 2008

A look at the eight first-round series in the NBA playoffs, which start this weekend:

Celtics vs. Hawks

Season series: Celtics 3-0. They won all three by double digits and didn't even need to play their Big Three in the fourth quarter of the last meeting to do it. Atlanta never reached 90 points in any of the three games. Kevin Garnett averaged 23.7 points and 13.7 rebounds while shooting 62.5 percent from the floor.

Storyline: After rolling to the NBA's best record in the largest one-season improvement in NBA history, the Celtics are back in the playoffs against the Hawks, who ended the league's longest postseason drought with their first appearance since 1999.

Key Matchup I: Garnett vs. Josh Smith. Garnett, a favorite for Defensive Player of the Year, against a player who should get some votes. Smith was in the league's top 10 in blocks and steals, but lacks Garnett's offensive skills and can get distracted yelling at referees, coaches or teammates. Nothing makes Garnett lose his focus.

Key Matchup II: Rajon Rondo vs. Mike Bibby. Here's one advantage for Atlanta. Bibby appeared in 51 postseason games while playing for Sacramento, while Rondo is making his debut in only his second NBA season. But his speed advantage will be tough for Bibby to handle.

X-Factor: Marvin Williams. Some Atlanta fans may never forgive the Hawks for taking Williams instead of Chris Paul or Deron Williams with the No. 2 pick in the 2005 draft. But Boston has struggled to defend athletic small forwards this season, so Williams could make an impact.

Prediction: Celtics in 4.

Pistons vs. 76ers

Season series: Tied 2-2 after the 76ers won the last two meetings. Philadelphia averaged 80 points in the first three games before scoring 101 in a victory on April 9, when Richard Hamilton was out and none of Detroit's starters played 30 minutes.

Storyline: Picked to finish near the bottom in the East, the 76ers instead turned into one of the league's biggest surprises and made the playoffs for the first time in three years. The key was an 11-4 March that included a one-point win at Detroit.

Key matchup I: Chauncey Billups vs. Andre Miller. Miller averaged a career-high 17.1 points as the veteran leader on a young team. The 76ers will need him to be just as good against Billups, a clutch postseason performer who was in double figures in every game this season against Philadelphia.

Key matchup II: Hamilton vs. Andre Iguodala. Iguodala couldn't reach a contract extension with the Sixers in the fall, but he will earn a nice deal from them in the offseason after leading them in scoring. He can help his case even more by containing Hamilton, Detroit's three-time All-Star and leading scorer.

X-factor: Lou Williams. Only 21 years old, the third-year guard has shown no fear taking the big shot late in games. He brings energy and confidence off the bench and coach Maurice Cheeks loves having him in the game in the fourth. A close game on the road won't rattle him, either.

Prediction: Pistons in 5.

Magic vs. Raptors

Season series: Magic, 2-1. Orlando found things to be pretty easy against Toronto on the offensive end, shooting 49 percent from the field and averaging 105.7 points. Chris Bosh scored 40 points in the Raptors' lone victory, but was out with an injury when the Magic clinched the season series with a 102-87 rout on March 4.

Storyline: Despite their 52 wins, the Magic are the overlooked team in the East, not considered much of a threat to Boston or Detroit, and this is their first chance to prove otherwise. Series matches two of the NBA's best 3-point shooting teams, but the Raptors will have to find a way to slow All-Star center Dwight Howard.

Key matchup I: Rashard Lewis vs. Bosh. The Magic are without a true power forward, using Lewis as an undersized 4, and now they have to face one of the best in the East. Bosh averaged 33 points against Orlando and should put up big numbers in this series. But Lewis creates his own matchup problems with his 3-point shooting and scored 20.7 per game against the Raptors.

Key matchup II: Howard vs. Rasho Nesterovic. Nesterovic heads to the postseason after one of the best stretches of his NBA career, averaging 16.3 points on 60 percent shooting in April. Any offense he provides here is a bonus, because his primary role will be to slow Howard, the NBA leader in double-doubles who shot 71 percent against Toronto.

X-factor: Jameer Nelson. Wasn't consistent enough with his play during the season, now faces Toronto's excellent point guard tandem of Jose Calderon and T.J. Ford.

Prediction: Magic in 6.

Cavaliers vs. Wizards

Season series: Tied 2-2. It's tough to gather much from the regular season, because the teams were never at full strength at the same time. Gilbert Arenas missed all four games, while All-Stars LeBron James and Caron Butler each sat out a loss because of injuries. James averaged 27 points, 10 rebounds and 7.7 assists in the three he played.

Storyline: Third straight year these teams are meeting in the first round. Cleveland won the previous two, sweeping a Washington team missing Arenas and Butler last year.

Key matchup I: James vs. Butler. Butler averaged 23 points in Washington's two wins, but was limited to 10 in the one loss he played in. Anxious for a good performance after missing last year's series with an injury. Whichever of these players survives will be a nightmare for Boston in the second round.

Key matchup II: Arenas vs. Daniel Gibson. Gibson had his own injury problems, missing more than a month after the All-Star break with an ankle injury. Either can change the momentum in a game by coming off the bench and getting hot from outside in a hurry, as Gibson did a few times last year during the Cavs' run to the NBA finals. Arenas has gradually been getting his confidence back after a lengthy absence following knee surgery.

X-factor: Brendan Haywood. Amid all the injuries around him, the center put together the best season of his career, averaging 10.6 points and 7.2 rebounds in 80 games.

Prediction: Wizards in 7.

Lakers vs. Nuggets

Season series: Lakers 3-0. All three meetings were in the first half of the season before the Lakers added Pau Gasol. Los Angeles shredded Denver for 118 points per game, only needing 22 per game from Kobe Bryant. Allen Iverson had 51 for Denver in one loss and averaged 32 points, but Carmelo Anthony managed only 20.7.

Storyline: A strong finish gave Bryant and the Lakers the No. 1 seed, but they get a dangerous first-round opponent that was only seven victories worse. Bryant (28.3), Iverson (26.4) and Anthony (25.7) ranked 2-3-4 on the NBA's scoring list.

Key matchup I: Bryant vs. Iverson. May not spend much time defending each other, but who cares? Two great scorers from the deep 1996 draft respect each other and both should put on a show. Lakers don't always need Bryant to score, but the Nuggets need points from Iverson.

Key matchup II: Gasol vs. Marcus Camby. Andrew Bynum never made it back, so Gasol is forced to remain as the center. That could help the Lakers here, because with all his offensive skills, Camby won't be able to help off him much to go for blocked shots and rebounds.

X-factor: J.R. Smith. Had fallen out of favor with coach George Karl by the end of last year's playoffs, but he's become a force off the Nuggets' bench now. Averaged 15.7 points after the All-Star break and spreads the defense with his 3-point shooting.

Prediction: Lakers in 6.

Hornets vs. Mavericks

Season series: Tied 2-2. The Mavericks earned the split to set up this series by beating the Hornets 111-98 on the last night of the season. The teams also split two meetings since Dallas acquired Jason Kidd, with the Hornets winning 104-93 in Kidd's Mavericks debut in the first game after the All-Star break.

Storyline: A year after losing in the first round as the No. 1 seed, the Mavericks are now the dangerous underdogs against a New Orleans team with little postseason experience.

Key matchup I: Chris Paul vs. Kidd. Paul had easily been getting the better of this matchup this season, both when Kidd was playing for New Jersey and Dallas, but the veteran collected his 100th career triple-double in the Mavs' victory in the season finale. Kidd struggles against Paul's speed, but always finds other ways to get by.

Key matchup II: David West vs. Dirk Nowitzki. West was one of the NBA's most underrated power forwards before making his first All-Star game this season. Can step away from the block to hit from the outside, though not with nearly the range of Nowitzki, who was superb down the stretch after returning from his ankle and leg injuries.

X-factor: Brandon Bass. Chance for the former Hornets player to hurt his old team off the bench. He did it Wednesday night, finishing with 13 points and 12 rebounds in 30 minutes. New Orleans doesn't have much size and strength among its reserves.

Prediction: Hornets in 7.

Spurs vs. Suns

Season series: Suns 3-1. Phoenix won both games after acquiring Shaquille O'Neal. Tim Duncan was a combined 15-for-40 in those two games, while O'Neal averaged 15 points and 12.5 rebounds. The Suns won twice in San Antonio.

Storyline: Second straight year these teams meet in the postseason. Spurs won last year's tense Western Conference semifinal in six games, aided by suspensions to the Suns' Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw in Game 5.

Key matchup I: Duncan vs. O'Neal and Stoudemire. Stoudemire was frequently in foul trouble trying to defend Duncan, but now is free of that responsibility with O'Neal there to do it. Duncan, one of the league's top low-post defenders, probably has to take turns defending both.

Key matchup II: Manu Ginobili vs. Leandro Barbosa. Ginobili is the best sixth man in the league, and Barbosa, who won last year's award, isn't too far behind. But the Suns can afford an off night from Barbosa, the Spurs have no chance if Ginobili doesn't play well.

X-factor: Grant Hill. Sat out the season finale with a groin injury but is expected to be fine by the series opener. Considered signing with the Spurs before opting for the Suns, and now tries to show San Antonio what it missed out on.

Prediction: Spurs in 7.

Jazz vs. Rockets

Season series: Jazz 2-1. They won the season series with a 105-96 victory on Monday. The Rockets handed the Jazz one of their four home losses with a 106-95 victory on Nov. 1.

Storyline: Rematch of a first-round series from a year ago, with similar circumstances. The Jazz are the No. 4 seed as a division champion, but the Rockets have home-court advantage because of their better record. That didn't help in 2007 - Utah won Game 7 at the Toyota Center.

Key Matchup I: Carlos Boozer vs. Luis Scola. Scola has played in numerous big games in Europe and the Olympics, where he helped Argentina win the gold medal in 2004. His first taste of postseason play in the NBA has him trying to contain Boozer, who led Utah with 21.1 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.

Key Matchup II: Ronnie Brewer vs. Tracy McGrady. McGrady scored 47 points in Houston's win and a total of 43 on 38 percent shooting in their losses. If Brewer and his help hold McGrady down here, T-Mac's streak of never getting past the first round continues.

X-Factor: Bobby Jackson. With Rafer Alston expected out at least for the first two games, the Rockets need big games from Jackson, who they acquired from New Orleans at the trade deadline to back up both guard spots.

Prediction: Jazz in 6.

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Re: First Round Previews

Eastern Conference playoff series betting previews
Covers.com

Boston Celtics vs. Atlanta Hawks
Series price: Boston -5610
Season series: Boston 3-0 SU, 2-1 ATS

How could this series end up as anything other than a sweep? The potential flaws pundits predicted we would see the restructured Celtics didn’t amount to anything but hot air. Rajon Rondo was supposed to be a liability at point guard, but instead he became a solid contributor on offense with more than 10 points per game. More importantly, he managed to take care of the ball and averaged only 1.9 turnovers per game – that’s fewer than a lot of highly touted point guards such as Steve Nash, Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Andre Miller and Chauncey Billups.

The bench was the other potential problem with the C’s, but with the acquisition of Sam Cassell and solid play from youngsters like Leon Powe and Glen Davis, the bench is much stronger than most people thought it would be. Just look at Kendrick Perkins; he emerged to become Boston’s leading shot blocker and No. 2 rebounder.

Atlanta made solid strides to become a playoff team this year and they finished the regular season strong after Mike Bibby arrived in February. But this is a mismatch of epic proportions and it’s hard to imagine a pointspread big enough to keep bettors away from Boston.

Pick: Boston in four


Detroit Pistons vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Series price: Detroit -1100
Season series: 2-2 SU, Philadelphia 3-1 ATS

The Sixers made a shocking push that began midway through the season and hauled a heap of cash along with them to this playoff berth. The pleasant surprises in Philly included Andre Miller’s brilliant play at the point and Samuel Dalembert’s shot-blocking and all-around presence in the paint.

It’s been a renaissance of sorts in Philadelphia, but in spite of that, this series will come down to experience (which Detroit has in spades) versus a lack thereof (Philly missed the playoffs the last two years).

And it would be a mistake to make too much of the Sixers’ 3-1 ATS record against the Pistons this season. Philly had a good run, but they hit the wall near the end of the season, going 7-3 SU, 6-4 ATS in the final 10 games, including four-straight losses to finish the season. They won a meaningless 101-96 victory as 4 ½-point favorites when they played Detroit on April 9 after Detroit had already clinched the No. 2 spot and most of the Pistons’ starters played limited minutes.

In the other Sixers win, in which Philly won by a single point as 8-point underdogs, the major reasons for the outcome were a slow start by Detroit which allowed Philadelphia to jump out to an early lead and an uncharacteristic 15 turnovers from the league’s best ball-handling team.

The Pistons starters have been resting up and looking to this series for the last week and a half. Nobody in the Eastern Conference has more playoff experience than the Pistons and they will be a different team than Philly faced in the last two games.

Pick: Detroit in five


Orlando Magic vs. Toronto Raptors
Series price: Orlando -280
Season series: Orlando 2-1 SU & ATS

The Raptors know first-hand how treacherous life is for a three-seed. Now the Orlando Magic may find out for themselves.

Last year, Toronto won the Atlantic division after a breakout season, but ran into the New Jersey Nets in the first round and had their high hopes shattered in the early going. Although it was an upset, the Raptors weren’t the first No. 3 to lose in the first round. In fact, over the last five seasons, four three-seeds have lost an opening-round series.

Will it happen to the Magic here? Most experts like the Magic and their all-world center to lay a quick beating on the Raps and move on easily. However, Toronto is a deep and talented team. They may not be able to match up with Dwight Howard in the paint, but Toronto has the Magic seriously outclassed in the backcourt.

If the oddsmakers keep the pointspreads tight in this series, the Magic are probably the best bet, but if you start seeing numbers like the -9 ½ points Orlando was laying in their last meeting, bettors might want to take a long, hard look at Toronto. But keep in mind, the Raptors were one of the best ATS teams in the NBA for the last two years, until they finished below .500 at the pay window this year.

The Raptors are also among the top 10 teams in average attendance and have developed a dedicated following, which could make it a tougher place to play than you might think. Toronto was also horrible on the road this year and the Magic’s home-court advantage could make the difference in the end.

Pick: Orlando in seven


Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Washington Wizards
Series price: Cavaliers -118
Season series: 2-2 SU & ATS

This is the series everyone thinks could be the “upset special,” which is fine, but when everybody’s talking about the upset it usually means the underdog will lose value on the pointspread.

All signs seem to point to a fairly balanced series – maybe even another classic like the one these teams played in ’06. They split the season series this year and the familiarity will grow as this will be the third consecutive postseason in which these teams have played in the first round.

The Wizards are hungry for a win and they haven’t been shy about saying so. DeShawn Stevenson called LeBron James “overrated” and Gilbert Arenas added, “They’ve been a .500 team ever since they made that trade and everybody wants a chance at that matchup.”

Areans also offered a little inside information on his blog regarding the Wizards potential strategy for dealing with James. He wrote: “DeShawn told Caron (Butler) that he’ll guard LeBron (sounds like a children’s nursery school rhyme) so that Caron can rest his legs. DeShawn was like, 'I’ll run him around and play D on him and get the fouls so you can just go off on the other end'.”

Agent Zero may have a point about the Cavaliers’ team chemistry since the trade, but the last thing you want to do with LeBron is poke the bear. Did he not see James single-handedly win a game in Toronto after he was taunted by some fans at courtside? He must have also missed the occasion on which James torched the Trailblazers in the fourth quarter after a similar heckling episode. How about when he answered Spike Lee’s courtside jibes by dropping 50 points on the Knicks?

Arenas wrote in his blog, “With…a player like LeBron, all you need is distractions. We got to be Bush-league.” I think Gil might be beating around the wrong bush here because an angry LeBron could make the Cavs a much better bet in this series.

Pick: Cleveland in seven

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Re: First Round Previews

Western Conference Round 1 series previews and picks
Covers.com

Denver Nuggets (8) vs. L.A. Lakers (1)
Series price: Lakers -600
Season series: Lakers won and covered all three meetings

Anyone who even remotely follows the NBA knows the Lakers made one of the best steal-trades in recent memory when they picked up Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies for a bag of shoelaces at the end of January.

The Lakers’ new center helped them vault to the top of the NBA standings and we’ve seen more smiles from Kobe Bryant in this half-season than we’ve seen in his entire previous NBA career. The Lakers rank third in the NBA in scoring and they are the fifth-most profitable team in the league at 47-33-1 ATS (against the spread).

Denver grabbed some cash at 44-38 ATS. This is no ordinary eight-seed, which you can tell by the fact that ninth-place Golden State had the best record ever for a team that didn’t make the postseason.

The Nuggets might be able to score with the Lakers, where they rank second in the league with 110 points per game. However, they have the second worst defense in the league with 107 points against per night and that’s what will ultimately decide the series.

Denver needs a huge series from Carmelo Anthony, who is shaking off the distraction of a DUI arrest this week. Allen Iverson’s playoff experience also needs to shine through for the Nugs to have a chance at the upset.

The No. 8 seed has only knocked off a No. 1 seed three times, most recently last season when the Warriors did it to the Mavs.

Pick: Lakers in five games


Dallas Mavericks (7) vs. New Orleans (2)
Series price: Hornets -160
Season series: 2-2 SU (straight up) and ATS

The Hornets were the surprise of this year’s NBA season, both for fans and bettors. They competed for top spot in the west right up to the end and they made savvy bettors a mountain of cash at 50-30-2 ATS.

Point guard Chris Paul emerged as an MVP candidate as the NBA assist and steals leader to go along with his 20.9 points per game. He gives the Hornets a chance to win every game and we never thought we’d be saying he was the best player on the court if the Mavs’ Dirk Nowitzki or Jason Kidd were out there.

Stopping Nowitzki will be a huge key for the Hornets, as will hitting the 3-ball. These teams match up spookily similarly in numbers on offense and defense, except the Hornets shoot slightly better from downtown at 39 percent.

All four games in this season series were won and covered by the home team. Both games in Dallas played under the total and both games in New Orleans played over. All four games had totals in the low 190s, so that might be a consistent trend to keep an eye out for.

Pick: Mavs in seven games


Pheonix  Suns (6) vs. San Antonio Spurs (3)
Series price: Spurs -150
Season series: Phoenix 3-1 SU and ATS

The Suns’ No. 3 offense meets the Spurs’ No. 3 defense in what could be one the best 3-6 playoff matchup of all time. This marks the third time in the past four seasons these two squads will meet and there will be no love lost between them.

It’s tough to forget last year’s clash in the western semis when Boris Diaw and Amare Stoudemire were suspended in Game 4 in an incident that changed the whole series. This time around, though, the defending NBA champs will face a new threat on the Spurs.

Shaquille O’Neal has given the Suns a brutally tough front court to contend with since being acquired from the Miami Heat earlier this season. He and Stoudemire both rank in the top five in the league in field goal percentage and the Spurs lost both meetings against Phoenix this year with Shaq in the lineup.

Tim Duncan vs. Shaq is going to be a great battle in the paint. Outside, we couldn’t ask for much better than Steve Nash vs. Tony Parker. It could end up being the contributions from other players that ultimately decide this series with the stars so evenly matched. 

Both teams are missing a contributing forward to injuries coming into the series – Grant Hill for the Suns and Robert Horry for the Spurs. 

A few trends worth noting coming into this series: All four meetings this season played under. The underdog won all four meetings ATS this season. The Suns are 0-3-1 ATS this season when playing on three or more days of rest, so keep in mind heading into Game 1.

Pick: Suns six games


Utah Jazz (4) vs. Houston Rockets (5)
Series price: Jazz -200
Season series: Utah 2-1 SU and ATS

When the Rockets lost Yao Ming for the season, everyone thought their year was finished. Only problem is, someone forgot to tell Houston that.

The Rockets ended up earning a 22-game winning streak – nine of those wins coming without Yao – and they swiped home court from under Utah’s nose in the last game of the season. Now we have a rematch of last year’s playoff series when the Jazz came back from a 3-2 series lead to win in seven games.

This year’s series will be a matchup of offense against defense with the Rockets ranking fourth in scoring defense in the league and the Jazz ranking fifth in scoring offense. Only Portand, Seattle, San Antonio and the Clippers played under the total more often than Houston this season while the Jazz were five games above .500 to the over.

Utah likes to run the floor with a balanced attack that features eight players who score at least eight points per game. Carlos Boozer leads the team with nearly 22 points per game and that's going to be a lot for Houston to handle.

The Rockets have only three players left who average double digits and six who average at least eight points per game. They’ll try to slow the game down to a half-court pace and keep Utah’s scoring in control.

Two concerns for Houston coming in: starting point guard Rafer Alston will miss at least the first few games of the series with a hamstring injury and Tracy McGrady is cold. McGrady has gone just 14-of-50 on field goals over his last three games and needs to find his shooting touch in a hurry.

Pick: Jazz in six games

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Re: First Round Previews

Cavaliers-Wizards preview
By Matt Fargo
VegasInsider.com 

**No. 4 Cleveland vs. No. 5 Washington**

Series Price: Cleveland -130,  Washington EVEN

Series Format: 2-2-1-1-1

Analysis: This is the third straight season that these two teams have met in the first round of the playoffs. Cleveland won both of the previous series’, first in six games in 2006 and then a sweep last season against an injury-riddled Washington team. The Wizards have added bulletin board material to this series starting with DeShawn Stevenson who flapped that LeBron James was overrated and then Gilbert Arenas saying that he is glad they got the Cavaliers as they are beatable and can’t win three straight series’ against Washington.

The teams split the season series 2-2 but this is the one playoff series that the past results mean little. Each game saw each team put a different lineup on the floor and this will be the first meeting that both teams are at least close to full strength. For Washington, Arenas did not play in any of the meetings while Caron Butler missed the third game. James was absent from the first meeting and the Cavaliers had just eight players dressed in that third game due to their huge mid-season trade. Basically, we start from scratch.

Cleveland gets the home court advantage and that could likely be the difference once again for the Cavaliers. Cleveland went 4-1 at home while the Wizards went just 1-4 on their home floor during the prior two playoff runs. This season, the Cavaliers went 27-14 at home while Washington went 25-16 so whichever team can break through on their opponents home floor will have a big edge in taking control of this series. If neither can, the Cavaliers have that edge.

From a betting standpoint, the Cavaliers may not be a great take on their home floor as they went just 15-26 against the number. Washington meanwhile went 24-17 ATS on the road but that seven-game margin was due to a 12-5 ATS mark against teams with a losing record. The Wizards are 12-3 ATS on the season as a road underdog of fewer than six points and 21-10 ATS as a road underdog overall. Add to that, the road team has covered five of the last seven meetings and it is possible the road team may be worth long looks.

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Re: First Round Previews

Magic-Raptors preview
By Matt Fargo
VegasInsider.com

**No. 3 Orlando vs. No. 6 Toronto**

Series Price: Orlando -320, Toronto +240

Series Format: 2-2-1-1-1

Analysis: Orlando could be considered the Toronto of last season as it kind of came out of nowhere to wins its division. We know the Magic were going to be improved with the addition of Rashard Lewis but we weren’t sure how much. They started out very strong, winning 16 of their first 20 games before coming back down to earth for a while. However, Orlando went 28-13 over the second half of is season so it enters the postseason with some excellent momentum and confidence.

Toronto comes into the postseason six games worse than last season but could be better off this time around. The Raptors admitted the heightened pressure of the playoffs caught them off guard after last season's six-game loss to New Jersey. While the playoff experience is a big plus, motivation heading into this weekend is not. Toronto had a dismal finish to the season, going 9-17 in March and April and the Raptors never really had any head of steam as they never had a winning streak of more than four games.

The playoff experience from last season also helps the Magic as they got their taste last season, getting swept by Detroit in the first round. There is no way the Magic get swept this season and they are likely going to have a rematch with Detroit should they get past Toronto. Knowing the Pistons are on deck should provide even extra motivation. Chris Bosh averaged 33 ppg in the two meetings he played in while Dwight Howard averaged 24.3 ppg and 12.7 rpg in the three meetings so this matchup will be special.

Orlando was the 2nd best team in the NBA against the number this season, going a profit earning 50-29-3. The Magic come in on a three-game ATS run while the Raptors come in on a three-game ATS skid. Orlando covered two of the three meetings this season which snapped a seven-game Toronto ATS streak. A key factor is that the first five games are every other day. The Raptors went 13-22 ATS when playing with a day of rest against an opponent with a day of rest while Orlando went 17-10 ATS in the same scenario.

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Re: First Round Previews

Pistons-76ers preview
By Josh Jacobs

**No. 2 Detroit vs. No. 7 Philadelphia**

Series Price: Detroit -1200, Philadelphia +700

Series Format: 2-2-1-1-1

Skinny:

The Eastern Conference bears witness to two teams that finished the season with below .500 records but were still able to squeeze into the playoffs. One such club is Philadelphia.

The 76ers closed out the last 10 games with a 3-7 straight up and 4-6 against the spread records (dropping four straight to end regular season play), typifying their less then stellar play throughout the season.

The Pistons have always been known for their impenetrable defense and finishing regular season play with 90.1 PPG allowed ranked the squad No. 1 in the league. Detroit’s defensive trio of Rasheed Wallace, Amir Johnson and Jason Maxwell have combined to average 4.15 blocks per game, and let’s not discount Antonio McDyess’ 8.5 RPG (2.6 offensive RPG).

For Philadelphia, only four No. 7 seeded teams since 1984 have defeated a No. 2 seed. It might be a far stretch to say that the Sixers can hang on down the stretch in this series, but splitting two games in four head-to-head meetings against Detroit proves that upsets do occur.

In their last showdown on Apr. 9, Philadelphia emerged victorious with a 101-94 final. The Pistons where held in check, shooting just 43 percent from the field, while the Sixers out rebounded their foe 43-39. Philly forward Andre Iguodala has averaged 23.5 PPG in his last two outings versus Detroit.

Gambling Notes:

The Pistons put the regular season to bed with a 7-3 ATS run in the final 10 games. Unfortunately for Detroit backers an average 19-19 ATS record versus teams with a losing record hasn’t been a gold mine at the window. Also take heed to the fact that the men from Motown are 1-4 ATS in their last five head-to-head games versus the 76ers.

Philadelphia is 10-4 ATS in their last 14 road games, but the squad has been a bear on the wallet when giving up triple-digit points in losses with a 3-18-2 ATS freefall on the season.

Total players should be wary of the ‘over’. Philadelphia heads into the playoffs with a 42-39-1 record on the ‘under’, while Detroit has topped their opponent with a 45-36-1 billing on the ‘under’.

Outlook:

Offense wins games and defense wins championships, especially in the Eastern Conference. With the Pistons holding teams to a third best 43.7 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from beyond the arc and the all important 90.1 PPG allowed, there shouldn’t be any question to who has the defensive edge.

The 76ers are heading into this series on a four-game slide. While it hasn’t been a run to remember, Philadelphia still can claim some success by extending its season into late April. Iguodala and prolonging this series past five games would be close to a miracle.

The Sixers haven’t savored over a conference and division title since the 2000-01 season and the NBA Championship trophy is now 25 years absent from calling the City of Brotherly Love home. Although the Pistons have remained relatively unchanged since winning four consecutive division titles beginning in 2005 (relying primarily on defense), this series should serve as a tune up for bigger contests to come.

Future Advice:

Most books agree that Detroit is a clear cut winner in this series by installing the team as a $12.00 favorite. Home games will be a time to shine for gamblers out there as the Pistons have racked in a 26-15 ATS record at home with a 24-16-1 ‘under’ billing to boot.

In an Eastern Conference characterized by two superior teams and a contender in Orlando, the Sixers should be pleased just to extend their life in April. Philly is outclassed, outmatched and should be out hustled in almost every category in the first round.

While Detroit has slouched in the defensive rebounding department, averaging a league 25th worst 29.5 RPG, the Sixers have registered a 28th worst 28.9 RPG. The main point is that even in areas where the Pistons have underachieved, Philadelphia looks unprepared to capitalize.

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