The NBA Conference Finals get underway this week, starting with the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night.
The Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors get their series started at Fiserv Forum on Wednesday. Here are a few thoughts on both Conference Finals, starting with the reigning champions…
Western Conference: Golden State Warriors vs Portland Trail Blazers
The Golden State Warriors overcame relative adversity to beat the Houston Rockets in six games.
Still with three All-Stars admittedly, the back-to-back champions were without Kevin Durant for the end of game five and the entirety of game six. DeMarcus Cousins, the fifth of the All-Stars, was unavailable for the whole series too.
Step forward, Splash Brothers. Steph Curry hasn’t been at his best this postseason, but the greatest shooter in NBA history delivered in a big way in game six, registering 33 points as Golden State won in Houston. Klay Thompson was deadly from deep, too.
Cousins and Durant are absent for the early part of this series. There’s uncertainty about Cousins’ quad and Durant’s calf, but they could potentially both return later in the series.
Their absences give Portland a chance of getting an early advantage. A full-strength Golden State would be too much for the Blazers to deal with, but a depleted Warriors could falter at Oracle in the first two games.
You feel Portland have to take at least one of the first two in Oakland to stand a chance of an upset. Their 11/4 price to win game one is a standout sports betting option.
This series will start as a battle of the backcourts. Curry and Thompson – arguably the best guard pairing in NBA history – face off against Dame Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Lillard, including that game winner, shone in the first round. McCollum lit up the Nuggets in the semi-finals and went for a clutch 37 points in game seven.
With Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu struggling offensively, Portland are reliant on McCollum and Lillard playing to their very best.
Enes Kanter’s offensive game will be crucial, too, and he could dominate on the boards with the Warriors likely to go small. It will be interesting to see how often Golden State use the pick and roll to try and expose Kanter’s less than stellar defence.
Portland are out at 4/1 to win the series. That price is on the short side, though another injury to Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, Curry or Thompson could change that.
It won’t be a walk over, but the Warriors should still be fairly comfortable.
TIP: Golden State Warriors 4-1 Portland Trail Blazers (11/5 with 888sport)
Eastern Conference: Milwaukee Bucks vs Toronto Raptors
Toronto, like Portland, needed a game seven to make the Conference Finals. Kawhi Leonard hit the first game seven winning buzzer-beating in NBA history to sink the Sixers.
His physics-defying four-bounce shot from the corner will go down in Raptors history regardless of what happens in this series and in Leonard’s upcoming free agency.
Leonard drew comparisons to Michael Jordan throughout the series. While his teammates were inconsistent, the former Finals MVP was ruthless offensively and a menace defensively. Toronto need several more monster nights from The Claw if they are to topple the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks.
After a disastrous game one, the Bucks bounced back to cruise past the Celtics in the semi-finals.
They have the least mileage on the clock of any of the remaining teams, having also made light work of the Pistons in the first round. With Malcolm Brogdon returning, Mike Budenholzer’s team will be full of confidence heading into this series.
Despite having the probable MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo and beating anyone who gets in their way this season, there are concerns about the Bucks.
Compared to the Raptors, they lack experience, with the majority of their players appearing in their first Conference Finals.
They are, however, still overwhelming favourites, sitting at 7/1 to sweep the Raptors. Guarding Antetokounmpo is an unsolvable problem. It’s a case of slowing him rather than stopping him.
Pascal Siakam has the length to trouble him, but the Raptors will likely do this by committee and will be quick to send the double team, as they did with Joel Embiid in the semi-finals.
Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe have enjoyed superb seasons and excelled for much of the series with the Celtics. Middleton hit big shots and was comfortable being the focal point of the offence when Antetokounmpo was grabbing a few minutes of rest.
Bledsoe will matchup with Kyle Lowry. Both are elite defenders, but this will be a test of their offensive consistency. Bledsoe and Lowry need to stay aggressive for their teams to function properly – the winner of that contest could swing the series.
In a week when half of the league is focused on the NBA Draft lottery, two mid-first-round picks take centre stage in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Antetokounmpo and Leonard will be the centrepiece of each team’s planning. This could be decided, however, by the play of the supporting casts.
After the inconsistencies of Lowry, Siakam, Danny Green and Marc Gasol against the Sixers, the Bucks just about have the edge in that department.
TIP: Milwaukee Bucks 4-2 Toronto Raptors (17/4 with 888sport)
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*