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Best Bets and Underdog Picks for 1st Round of 2021 NBA Playoffs

Sam Cox

by Sam Cox in NBA Basketball

May 20, 2021 · 1:53 PM PDT

Julius Randle Knicks
Julius Randle and the Knicks face a tough Hawks team in Round 1 (Photo by John McCoy/Icon Sportswire)
  • The NBA playoffs get underway on Saturday, May 22nd
  • There’s set to be plenty of competitive first round series
  • What are the best series bets in the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs? See our picks below!

The NBA playoffs officially begin on Saturday, May 22nd. The top six seeds in each conference have enjoyed a few days rest while the Play-In tournament takes place, but they’ll be ready to go for Saturday.

This is a postseason of unknowns with limited crowds and mixed up seedings. Several first-round matchups have the books undecided, with well-matched teams going up against each other in both conferences.

Still among the favorites in NBA Championship odds, the Los Angeles Lakers secured their playoff spot with a win over the Warriors in the West Play-In. Even without Jaylen Brown, the Celtics overcame the Wizards to book a date with the title favorite Brooklyn Nets in the first round.

NBA Playoffs First Round Series Odds

DAL vs LAC Odds to Win Series at FanDuel
Dallas Mavericks +320
Los Angeles Clippers -430
POR vs DEN Odds to Win Series
Portland Trail Blazers -115
Denver Nuggets -105
ATL vs NYK Odds to Win Series
Atlanta Hawks -115
New York Knicks -105
MIA vs MIL Odds to Win Series
Miami Heat +240
Milwaukee Bucks -310
PHI vs WAS/IND Odds to Win Series
Philadelphia 76ers TBD
Washington Wizards/Indiana Pacers TBD
BOS vs BKN Odds to Win Series
Boston Celtics -630
Brooklyn Nets +1050
UTA vs MEM/GSW Odds to Win Series
Utah Jazz TBD
Memphis Grizzlies/Golden State Warriors TBD
PHO vs LAL Odds to Win Series
Phoenix Suns +122
Los Angeles Lakers -150

Odds as of May 20th

Heat vs Bucks

This is potentially the spiciest of the first round matchups. Having earned the third seed in the East, Milwaukee’s reward is a matchup with the team who knocked them out in five games in the Orlando bubble. Despite an underwhelming regular season, the Heat are still considered the scariest team in the East outside of the top three.

Milwaukee is different from last season. Their regular season record might be worse, but this is a more complete, versatile team. Mike Budenholzer has experimented with switching. Jrue Holiday brings another ball handler for postseason basketball.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has been used as a screener more than ever before. The Bucks have sacrificed regular season wins for an increased chance at playoff glory, and admirably so. Miami, though, have experience, and arguably the best coach in the NBA when it comes to playoff adjustments.

The Heat have not been a standout performer. A bit of a bubble hangover hit them early on, and the roster has been unsettled through COVID-19 and injuries. The Victor Oladipo trade did not work out.

Yet, when Jimmy Butler is on the floor, this is still an upper echelon playoff team. The Heat outscore opponents by 5.4 points per 100 possessions with the five-time All-Star on the court. Bam Adebayo has taken another step forward this year, too.

Should the Bucks Be Such Heavy Favorites?

The Bucks deserve to be favored in this series, though the -310 is shorter than many would have expected. There’s definitely value in backing the Heat, who have notched impressive wins over the Sixers and Celtics recently.

There are reasons to doubt the Heat, however. Swapping Jae Crowder for Trevor Ariza weakens them. Goran Dragic is a long way from the player he was in the bubble.

Erik Spoelstra is an advantage in the postseason, and the play of Butler and Adebayo is enough to make this a difficult series for Milwaukee. The +380 price on Milwaukee to win it in six games looks a good bet.

Hawks vs Knicks

No one expected the Knicks to be in this position. Few believed the Hawks would end as the five seed when they fired Lloyd Pierce. This is a dream scenario for both teams.

Both New York and Atlanta will be delighted with this matchup, considering that both have a legitimate claim to being series favorites. The Knicks have already exceeded all expectations (and by several miles), while the Hawks reaching the second round would be a massive step for this young team.

The books cannot split these two teams. While Atlanta has greater talent on paper, it would be foolish to underrate what the Knicks have achieved. New York finished with a 4.4 net rating in the second half of the season, just ahead of the Hawks’ 4.2. Only the Sixers and Jazz had better defensive ratings than Tom Thibodeau’s team. The offense even reached league-average levels after struggling early in the year.

Expect This One to Go Deep

The Knicks core players have been among the league leaders in minutes, and everyone on the roster knows their role to perfection. Even under Nate McMillan, things are more unsettled for the Hawks. De’Andre Hunter is slowly working his way back from injury, and it’s unclear how many minutes will be available for Danilo Gallinari once the rotation shortens in the postseason.

Atlanta has the better upper-end talent, even with Julius Randle playing at an All-NBA level. That’s often what playoff series come down to, but the Knicks have been working at a talent deficit against the majority of opponents. Thibodeau has a well-drilled, relentlessly hustling roster. They will make the Hawks work for every point.

This series will go deep. Getting +200 on this to be a seven-game series is good value. With almost identical odds, the Knicks are the best bet to win the series, and some bettors will inevitably be put off by McMillan’s postseason struggles with the Pacers.

Blazers vs Nuggets

Portland looked like an ideal first round opponent not so long ago. The Blazers got hot to end the year, however, finishing with a 10-5 record and the second-best net rating over the final 15 games. Escaping the Play-In was big for Dame Lillard and co, but it was also the nature of their improvement.

After being one of the worst defenses in the league for much of the year, there was a notable uptick in their defensive performance. Given the offensive firepower they possess, being a league average defense makes them a dangerous opponent. That’s the standard they were at towards the end of the season as Terry Stotts shortened his rotation and Jusuf Nurkic got back to his best.

Defending at a high level is particularly crucial against these Nuggets, even without Jamal Murray and Will Barton.

Led by MVP Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets put together an impressive run even with a depleted backcourt. Murray, Barton and Monte Morris’ injuries meant a lot of minutes for Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers. While Jokic and Michael Porter Jr managed to carry the offense in the absence of their three key guards, a lot is going to be asked of Campazzo and Rivers on the defensive end against Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Aaron Gordon has helped Denver on the defensive end, but there’s a ceiling to how good they can be defensively with this roster. This is part of what makes this such a brilliant series. Both teams are offense-first, and both are ultimately flawed.

Too Close to Call

Portland beat Denver on the final day of the regular season. The Nuggets weren’t exactly committed to that game, however, and they had already secured the season series thanks to two close wins earlier in the campaign.

These two teams went seven games a couple of years ago. A lot has changed since then, but another well-fought series is to be expected. The late-season performances of the Blazers make them the better bet to progress given the odds, but it’s hard to feel confident betting against Jokic.

It will come down to which team can put together the most consistent defensive effort and avoid letting the opposing stars from taking over.

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