Underdogs to Watch Out for During NBA Playoffs 2018
First-round series odds for each NBA underdog come via TopBet and are accurate as of the morning of Saturday, April 14. These numbers will change following the outcome of every Game 1, so be sure you’re regular re-checking the lines on a daily or game-by-game basis.
4. Washington Wizards (+450)
A lot of people will be looking to the Washington Wizards to overthrow the first-place Toronto Raptors in Game 1. That doesn’t typically happen in the one-versus-eight matchup, but these are special circumstances. The Wizards, for starters, appeared to lean into the No. 8 seed at the last minute. They were supposed to contend for one of the Eastern Conference’s first four slots, but John Wall’s left knee injury changed things for them at midseason. By schedule’s end, with home-court advantage decidedly out of reach, they played like a squad who wanted a crack at the Raptors over the second-place Boston Celtics or third-place Cleveland Cavaliers.
That seems ridiculous in so many respects. The Raptors have been otherworldly for most of this year, while the Celtics are without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward and the Cavaliers are without any iota of defensive fortitude.
But this says more about how the Wizards view Toronto than anything. The Raptors have historically struggled to win Game 1s, even on their own turf, and both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are posting playoff shooting percentages that pale in comparison to their regular-season averages.
Toronto’s head coach, Dwane Casey, is also on record as saying he won’t tinker with his rotation for the postseason. That means he’ll remain heavily reliant on his bench. The Raptors’ second-most used lineup is an all-backup mob. And while that unit is blitzing opponents by more than 15 points per 100 possessions, they’ve cooled off since Feb. 1, registering a net rating south of five.
Other teams, such as the Wizards, also pare down their rotations during the playoffs. That will pit the Raptors’ backups against more starter-heavy combinations they may not be able to thwart. We saw the ill-effects of that dynamic most recently in their two losses to the Cavaliers.
Of course, the Wizards need to measure up themselves for any of this to matter. They’ve been unimpressive even with a healthy Walll, who, along with Bradley Beal, has struggled to find nylon down the stretch of close games. But both guards have typically stepped up their offensive efficiency in the playoffs, and again, the prospect of seeing Washington’s starters wage short-burst war against Toronto’s backups opens the door for an early-series lead that ultimately turns into an upset.
3. New Orleans Pelicans (+170)
The New Orleans Pelicans almost feel too low on this upset ladder. They have the NBA’s fifth-best defense and are playing at the fastest pace since DeMarcus Cousins’ injury. Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis have been balling, while Darius Miller and E’Twaun Moore are splashing in threes with extraterrestrial efficiency.
Alas, the teams in front of them are too intriguing, both situationally and on paper, for us to stash them any higher. Plus, the Portland Trail Blazers deserve our respect.
But so do the Pelicans. They’re finding different ways to win in the absence of Cousins. Their offense isn’t as potent, but this gets offset by their defensive uptick. And they could experience an offensive renaissance on the more glamorous end against a Blazers defense that isn’t particularly used to walling off transition assaults.
Portland prefers coaxing rival offenses into tough mid-range jumpers in the half-court. The Pelicans will put pressure on their stylistic proclivity. They’re trying to catch defenses sleeping on fast breaks, and we should see their three-point-attempt rate skyrocket knowing the Blazers themselves aren’t jacking an inordinate number of treys.
Stopping Portland at the other end will be a challenge for New Orleans. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are some of the best from-scratch creators in the game, and the Blazers are enjoying quality off-ball scoring from Al-Farouq Aminu, rookie Zach Collins and, believe it or not, Evan Turner.
This is where Davis earns his money. He flies around all over the place in the half-court, which is how the Blazers like to run their offense. He switches pick-and-rolls with ease, and he’s among the most exhaustive rim protectors in the game.
Relative to the NBA’s average shooting percentage at the iron, in fact, Davis has saved more total value from point-blank range than all but three other players. (One of them, Jusuf Nurkic, happens to be repping the other side of this series). The Blazers may end up settling for a ton of jumpers outside of transition, a model they’re not built to perfect beyond the efforts of McCollum and Lillard—which, for obvious reasons, would be huge for the Pelicans.
2. Utah Jazz (+120)
Finding the right spot for the Utah Jazz is tough. You can talk yourself into putting them at No. 1 on the upset-alert totem pole. You could also convince yourself they need to go lower.
And so, after all that equivocation, they’re here. And this feels right.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are not the best matchup for them. They’re far more explosive, and they contain extra starpower that could wind up putting a lot of close games out of reach in the final minutes. But the Thunder are also a disjointed mass of inconsistency.
Yes, they have the third-best record among every team in the Western Conference when facing opponents above .500. They’re also 17-19 through games in which neither squad trails or leads by more than three points entering the final three minutes.
Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony cannot buy buckets down the stretch this year—not even at the free-throw line. And while Paul George usually kicks it up a notch in the playoffs, he needs the ball in his hands to reach that level. It’s not a given that he gets it. Westbrook already commandeers the crunch-time offense, and Anthony averaged more shot attempts per 36 minutes in the clutch during the regular season.
The Jazz, by comparison, are far more steady in these tightly wound situations. They could get into trouble if George is assigned to Donovan Mitchell, their best face-up weapon. But they have just enough surrounding shot creation in Joe Ingles, Ricky Rubio and perhaps even Derrick Favors to get by. They don’t need an established pecking order if Mitchell is neutralized; whoever’s open or in single coverage will suffice.
Most of the data in this category supports the Jazz’s case. Since Jan. 28, when Rudy Gobert returned from his last knee injury, they’re outpacing opponents by 23.3 points per 100 possessions in crunch time—the fourth-highest differential over that span.
In lieu of a fiery one-on-one scorer, the Jazz have opted to break character and really push the pace late in games. They’re ninth in possessions used per 48 minutes of clutch basketball, a far cry from the No. 25 ranking they carry on the season overall.
And you know what? This faster, success-by-committee approach is working. Only five teams have a better offensive rating in crunch time through this stretch. The Thunder aren’t one of them. Look for the Jazz to continue down this road now more than ever, in an attempt to disarm by way of a divergent strategy.
1. Milwaukee Bucks (+450)
Giving the Milwaukee Bucks the No. 1 upset-watch spot doesn’t sit entirely right. They don’t deserve it by many measures.
In the 33 games they’ve played since Feb. 1, they’re an uninspiring 17-16, with neither a top-10 offense nor defense. They’ve been outright alarming in the clutch during this time as well. They’re 9-10 in such situations, with a woefully uninventive offense that ranks 22nd in points scored per 100 possessions.
Going up against the Celtics, who field one of the NBA’s seven best offenses in crunch time, should spell the Bucks’ doom. They’re not nearly consistent enough, and Boston employs a much better head coach, in Brad Stevens.
So why the No. 1 spot?
Injuries, injuries, injuries.
The Celtics lost Gordon Hayward for the year on opening night. Rookie Daniel Theis followed him to the shelf much later in the season. Then, worst of all, Kyrie Irving, their best scorer, needed to have another left knee surgery at the end of March that ended his 2017-18 campaign as well. And on top of all that, the Celtics are without Marcus Smart, their scrappiest defender, as he recovers from thumb surgery. He may return in the first round, but he could also miss the rest of the year.
Though the Celtics have shown they can cobble together impressive victories with a skeleton crew, the playoffs are a different beast. They run the equivalent of the league’s crummiest offense when playing without both Irving and Al Horford, and their crunch-time offense won’t stick without the All-Star point guard handling the ball.
Complicated still, the Bucks always figured to have the best player in this series. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a top-five star. He’d be good for roughly two victories on his own against a full-strength Celtics outfit.
Pit him against that same team, minus Kyrie Irving? Forget it. Heck, there’s even a chance the Celtics won’t have one of the three best players in this series. Milwaukee has fringe stars Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton in its rotation, and it’s not hard to envision both of them outperforming Horford, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Mash all this together, and the choice is clear…because there is no choice. The Bucks are borderline favorites in this series due to Irving’s absence. That the sportsbooks haven’t recognized them as such demands they get the No. 1 upset-watch slot.
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