After 82 games of jostling for position, the NBA Playoffs tip off on Saturday – and the real business of the season begins.
And of the 16 teams left in contention for the championship, there are only six with genuine pretentions of ending up with the title trophy in their hands in two months time.
But in what is the most open post-season in years, it’s still incredibly tough to pick a winner with reigning champions Miami – still 3.25 favourites to make it a three-peat - likely to duel with Indiana to emerge from the Eastern Conference, with both still viable challengers despite their recent slumps.
While four potent teams – San Antonio, Oklahoma City, LA Clippers and the Houston Rockets – have all been compelled to take what will be an immensely tough road through the West, with the Clips arguably offering the best value in the Conference odds at 4.50.
Of the eight first round series, four look like mismatches, one should see the upper seed denied, and only one is a potential upset. And with so little to choose between the leading lights, it would be no shock if the Finals go the distance again, a scenario now available at 4.25.
Here’s a look at how the match-ups shake out.
Indiana Pacers - Championship odds: 5.50 – Atlanta Hawks 150.00
The Pacers have won just ten of their last 23 games, hardly the kind of form which points to a major threat. There are chemistry issues, certainly. But yet there’s enough talent to compete and with a greater focus on defence in the playoffs, Indiana cannot yet be written off. Whereas Atlanta, who would surely rather be headed for the Draft lottery, most certainly can.
Forecast: Indiana 4-1 Atlanta
Miami Heat 3.25 – Charlotte Bobcats 150.00
Like the Pacers, Miami have stumbled and stuttered their way through the past two months with an 11-14 finish. And their rebounding woes, and a general lack of cohesion, mean LeBron James and Co are far from the sure bets they seemed a year ago. Charlotte won’t be much of a challenge but the Heat’s fate rests on keeping Dwyane Wade healthy and re-discovering that lost aura.
Forecast: Miami 4-1 Charlotte
Toronto Raptors 60.00 – Brooklyn Nets 25.00
The NBA’s form team are the Brooklyn Nets, which is why the disasters of late 2013 can now be the success story of Spring 2014. There’s experience in abundance, plus confidence overflowing, which is a big reason why the Nets can kill off Toronto, whose shock rise from nowhere to Atlantic Division champions surely ends here.
Forecast: Toronto 2-4 Brooklyn
Chicago Bulls 40.00 – Washington Wizards 75.00
Chicago’s post-All Star renaissance has been a joy to watch because it showed there is fight in even a wounded dog. Joakim Noah sets the tone, the others follow. But the young improving Wizards are intriguing, with John Wall’s speed and scoring providing a wildcard, in what may be a series where first to 95 points wins.
Forecast: Chicago 4-3 Washington
San Antonio Spurs 5.00 – Dallas Mavericks 100.00
San Antonio have coasted to the number one seeding while being able to rest their roster and that figures to make the Spurs a solid tip to get back to the Finals. They swept Dallas 4-0 in the regular season and there’s no reason to expect anything different this time.
Forecast: San Antonio 4-0 Dallas
Oklahoma City Thunder 5.25 – Memphis Grizzlies 125.00
Call this an upset? Even though the Thunder are 2.70 to come out of the West and they won the season series 3-1, there’s a real danger for OKC here if Russell Westbrook can’t go flat out against the hugely under-rated Mike Conley. I like how Memphis has gradually improved through the campaign and they may provide the shock of the opening round.
Forecast: Oklahoma City 3-4 Memphis
LA Clippers 8.50 - Golden State Warriors 32.00
The Clippers are rolling. Chris Paul is playing the most effective basketball of his career, and Blake Griffin is now a genuine MVP player. They can win it all. But do they know how to? The ailing Warriors might not give us any great insight but beyond that, we’ll see what LA’s new superpower is really made of.
Forecast: LA Clippers 4-0 Golden State
Houston Rockets 25.00 – Portland Trail Blazers 40.00
Houston and Portland ended with identical 54-28 records but while the Rockets seem to be fixed on a playoff run, the Trail Blazers can rest on their laurels, knowing their early season charge moved them on quicker than anyone expected. We should see points aplenty between two of the NBA’s best offenses but Houston’s homecourt advantage, and Dwight Howard’s presence, can be the difference.
Forecast: Houston 4-1 Portland
Best bet: While the Rockets are under priced at 10.00 for the Western Conference, have a flutter now on the Clippers for the NBA title at the value odds of 8.50