With LeBron James picking up the NBA’s Most Valuable Player prize for the fourth time in his career on Sunday, the Miami Heat are enjoying the plaudits as they prepare to start their Eastern Conference semi-final series with the Chicago Bulls. The reigning champions are now 1.42 for the title with the San Antonio Spurs back at 5.50 as second favourites. Having blown by Milwaukee in the first round, the path to the Finals seems wide open for the Heat.
Miami v Chicago
Miami’s sweep of Milwaukee was entirely expected but it wasn’t a true test of the theory that the Heat can simply breeze to a second successive crown. But although the Bulls showed they have the heart of a lion by overcoming injuries to oust Brooklyn 4-3 in the first round, it’s tough to see them having enough to push Miami to the limit.
The return of Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich would help but their status remains unclear for the opening tie of what is expected to be a rough series physically. And Chicago have the extra burden of coming in with just two days rest, whereas their opponents should benefit from a week’s break.
The Heat will also be fired up to avenge their loss to the Bulls five weeks ago when their bid to break the NBA’s consecutive win record was halted at 27. But the key for the champs is rebounding. In both the Bulls’ wins over Miami this season, they’ve comprehensively out-rebounded their rivals, securing more possessions, while also limiting the Heat to just 5.3 three-pointers per game.
That should make for a low-scoring series, with the Game 1 total points line at 191. While Chicago are 7.70 to draw first blood on the road, there’s some value in backing them to cover the handicap of +11.5 at 1.91.
Series prediction: Miami to win 4-0
San Antonio v Golden State
The Spurs are 1.80 to win the West with the Warriors long-shots at 14.00 but the way that Golden State ground out a surprise win over Denver will put San Antonio on guard, especially if Stephen Curry can continue to light up these NBA Playoffs. Despite playing with a sprained ankle, Curry has made shot after shot, helping his team to average 107.2 points so far in the post-season while posting 24.5 himself.
He made seven threes in the Warriors' 116-106 win over the Spurs last month, splitting the season series 2-2, but the Warriors haven’t won in San Antonio in 16 years. They’ll also find it hard to contain Tony Parker with Andrew Bogut becoming a pivotal figure if the Frenchman’s forays into the paint are to be limited.
We should see plenty of points between these two, and it’s worth taking over the Game 1 line at 201.0 at 1.91. If David Lee can advance his comeback, Golden State may have a shot at covering the handicap of +8.5 but the Spurs should prove a class above.
Series prediction: Spurs to win 4-2
Best bet: Take Chicago on the handicap of +11.5 against Miami at 1.91