Western Conference Finals betting preview

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What an absolutely wild NBA playoffs this has been so far. Just to recap, the Miami Heat are two games away from the NBA Finals, the Denver Nuggets have overcome two straight 3-1 series deficits, and six of the seven teams with the shortest title odds before the season are currently on the couch.

The Western Conference finals get underway on Friday with a matchup between the Nuggets and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers have looked dominant in the playoffs so far, winning each of their first two series in just five games.

Can they be the team that finally vanquishes the Nuggets, or does Denver have a fighting chance? Let’s take a look at some potential betting value for this series and for Game 1 in particular.

Los Angeles Lakers (-7) vs. Denver Nuggets — 211 total

Series odds: Lakers -625/Nuggets +450

Let’s start with the Nuggets since their run to the Western Conference finals has been so improbable. It’s not that they don’t have talent — they were pretty significant favorites vs. the Jazz in the first round — but rather the manner in which they’ve advanced. They’ve fallen behind in each of their first two series three games to one, so they literally had to make history just to get to this point:

Not only did they fall behind the Clippers 3-1 in the series, they also fell behind in each of their three elimination games. They overcame a 15-point second-half deficit in Game 5, a 19-point second-half deficit in Game 6, and an 11-point second-quarter deficit in Game 7. According to inpredictable — which tracks live in-game win probabilities –, the Nuggets had just a 9% win probability at their lowest-point in Game 5, a 6.2% win probability in Game 6, and a 21.2% win probability in Game 7. Like a bad horror movie villain, this team simply will not die.

They have survived thanks to the two-man combination of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Murray was outstanding in their first-round series, averaging 31.6 points, 6.3 assists, and 5.6 rebounds per game while shooting 55.0% from the field and 53.3% from 3-point range. He went absolutely bonkers in Game 5 and Game 6, scoring a combined 92 points over those two contests. Murray had the easier matchup in that series — Jokic had to deal with Rudy Gobert — so he was able to pick up the slack.

Things flipped in the Clippers series. Murray was the one with the tough individual matchup and was forced to deal with a combination of Patrick Beverley, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard on the perimeter. Jokic had a soft matchup on the interior, and he was able to take full advantage. He struggled a bit in Game 1, but from Game 2 on he was able to average 26.0 points, 15.2 rebounds, and 7.2 assists per game. He filled the stat sheet in the way that only Jokic can in Game 7, becoming the first player in NBA history to record a triple-double with 20+ rebounds in a Game 7:

The question now becomes can either of these players do it again vs. the Lakers? The Lakers have been outstanding defensively during the playoffs, allowing just 105.4 points per 100 possessions. They’ve also faced two excellent offensive teams in the Rockets and Blazers, which makes that number even more impressive.

Jokic figures to see a lot of Anthony Davis on defense, who was the runner-up for the Defensive Player of the Year award. He was able to put the clamps on Jokic during the regular season, limiting him to just 30% shooting from the field. Davis is one of the few big men who can play pretty comfortably on the perimeter, which is where Jokic did a lot of his damage vs. the Clippers.

With that in mind, it may be up to Murray to carry the offense in this series. Avery Bradley saw the most of Murray during the regular season, and he’s obviously not an option after opting out of the Orlando restart. Murray absolutely torched Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope during the regular season, shooting a ridiculous 12-16 from the field with those guys serving as his primary defenders.

Green and KCP will likely get a chance for some redemption during the playoffs, but don’t be surprised if LeBron James also gets a crack at Murray at some point. He still grades out as one of the best defenders in the league per ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus, and if the Lakers can limit Jokic and Murray it seems like they should be able to win this series pretty comfortably.

As for the Lakers, they obviously rely on their own dynamic duo of LeBron and AD, but shutting those two guys down is borderline impossible. They have both been outstanding during the playoffs: AD is averaging 27.6 points and 10.9 rebounds while LeBron is basically averaging a triple-double. Both guys have also been really efficient, with each owning an effective FG% (eFG%) of at least 61.2%.

The Nuggets have been a subpar defensive team all season, and those struggles have continued in the playoffs. They rank just 11th in defensive efficiency during the postseason and 12th in expected eFG%. That is a bad combination against a Lakers’ team that ranks second in offensive efficiency during the playoffs.

Denver in particular has surrendered a high volume of shots from two key areas during the playoffs: at the rim and the corner 3. They’ve allowed the third-highest frequency of opponent shot attempts to come at the rim and the sixth-highest frequency of shots from the corner. Outside of the free throw line, those are the two most efficient ways to score the basketball in 2020.

Unsurprisingly, the Lakers do a lot of damage at the rim in particular. That makes sense when you have two guys that can get to the rim seemingly whenever they want.

The big X-factor for the Lakers in this series is the play of Rajon Rondo. The Lakers have been begging for someone in their rotation to step up alongside Davis and James, and Rondo has taken on the mantle. He’s averaged 10.6 points, 7.0 assists, and 2.0 steals in just 26.6 minutes per game vs. the Rockets, and he also shot 44.4% from 3-point range. If he can give the Lakers a reliable third option on the offensive end, they are going to be really tough to beat.

The Lakers should undoubtedly win this series, but I’m not interested in laying -650 with them. Instead, I’m going to look at the Lakers -2.5 games at -104. I’m a little hesitant about fading the Nuggets after what they’ve done in the past two series, but I’m trying to keep a short memory. All the numbers suggest that this series should be over quickly.

As for Game 1, I’m definitely rolling with the Lakers. The Nuggets have played back-to-back grueling series, and they’ve had just two days off before matching up with the Lakers. LA has been off for five straight days, and teams with that significant of a rest edge have historically gone 22-13-0 against the spread during the playoffs. I’m expecting them to take care of business in this series, and hopefully that starts with a comfortable win in Game 1.

The Lakers also appear to be garnering some early sharp interest. This spread has risen from 6.5 to 7.0, thanks in part to 72% of the early spread money landing on LA. They’ve only received 50% of the spread tickets, so that’s a good indicator of sharp activity.

The Picks: Lakers -7, Lakers -2.5 games

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