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BettorIQ Previews Saturday’s NBA Playoff Matchups

NBA

Following a pair of Game 7’s in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, all four second-round matchups are finally in full swing. Let’s take a look at the two Saturday matchups. The Boston Celtics take on the Toronto Raptors in Game 4 of their series, followed by the underdog Denver Nuggets playing Game 2 against the Los Angeles Clippers. 

Toronto Raptors vs. Boston Celtics (+1) 

Despite a 2-1 SU and 3-0 ATS record over the first three games of this series, Boston once again opened as an underdog here, this time by only a single point. The Celtics were a 2.5-point underdog in Game 1 of the series, but the market adjustment seems warranted. Including the regular season and seeding round, Boston is now 4-2 SU and 5-1 ATS against the Raptors this season, with the only regular season loss coming on the second night of a back-to-back during a busy Christmas period for the Celtics. This seems like the rare case of Toronto being given a little too much respect in the market and around the league. While there’s no doubting the mettle of the defending champions, who executed a wonderful buzzer-beating play to eek out a 104-103 victory in Game 3, this is just a big challenge for the Raptors. Boston is expert at switching and screening on the offensive end, setting up good matchups. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are almost always able to get shorter defenders like Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet switched onto them, allowing the taller wings to get consistently good looks at the basket. Kemba Walker has shown the ability to exploit matchups against slower Raptors defenders, freeing him up to both score at the rim and in the midrange.  

On the defensive end, the versatility of Brown, Tatum, and top defender Marcus Smart is making effective and efficient perimeter scoring next to impossible for the Raptors. Toronto is shooting only 34-of-120 from distance in this series so far, and that’s no fluke. The Raptors are struggling to get good looks at range against this quality defensive unit. Meanwhile, the edge inside has also tilted to Boston, as the effective play of Daniel Theis and breakout effort of Robert Williams has helped the Celtics to a 2-1 series lead. In Game 3, Head Coach Brad Stevens made the surprising decision to play Enes Kanter for the first time all series, and it was a disaster on the defensive end. The struggling Raptors reeled off 14 points in a four minute stretch, and were able to find their shooting rhythm just in time to save their season. It’s highly unlikely Stevens makes that same mistake again, and over the three games, Toronto has not shown the ability to execute consistently enough on the offensive end. Theis himself has a phenomenal defensive rating of 90.2 in the series so far. 

It’s hard to imagine anything less than a great effort from the hard-nosed Raptors, but given the nature of Boston’s Game 3 loss, the bounce back effect will likely benefit the Celtics. Jaylen Brown, whose blown assignment at the buzzer cost his team the game, was devastated but defiant in his post-game remarks, and team leader Marcus Smart has predicted his team will come out refocused and locked in. Boston has out-rebounded Toronto by 13 over the first three games, and it’s hard to see that changing in Game 4. The combination of the matchup problems the Raptors face, and Boston’s ability to control the boards and the tempo make the Celtics an excellent value play here.  

Denver Nuggets (+9) vs. Los Angeles Clippers 

Game 1’s line opened with the Clippers as only a 5.5 point favorite, although that number eventually ballooned to 9.5 before tipoff. While it seems clear the books just had the wrong number out of the gates, the Nuggets getting 9 points here for Game 2 does seem like a slight over correction. While Denver was blown out of the gym in Game 1, losing 120-97, much of their struggles can be attributed to the understandable fatigue deficit the team faced. The Nuggets were only two days removed from a long seven-game battle with Utah, and Los Angeles had been off since Sunday. Denver should be able to match the Clippers energy in this one. In addition to being on equal rest, the uncompetitive nature of Game 1 made it so no Denver starter logged more than 29 minutes, with the exception of Jamal Murray who played 33.  

One positive bettors can draw on in this spot was how effective Denver was out of the gates. With what little energy they had, the Nuggets starting lineup built a 24-18 lead against the Clippers first unit, showing some of the areas in which Denver could have success. Nikola Jokic should be able to be efficient on offense in this series, now that he is freed from the defensive efforts of former Defensive Player of the Year Rudy GobertJeremi Grant’s athleticism and outside shooting has been and should continue to be a welcome addition to the starting lineup. Gary Harris played some effective wing defense as well.  

This is not to suggest the Nuggets are going to storm in and grab an upset win. The Clippers, like the Nuggets, have dealt with injuries throughout the restart and were clearly thrilled to have emotional leader Patrick Beverley back in the lineup. The guard scored two three-pointers early in the first quarter, and played a great all-round game in his limited 12 minutes of action. He should see his time on the floor increase here, which is great for a Clippers team whose net rating is 6.6 points higher with him on the floor. In addition, Montrezl Harrell finally looked back to full health in Game 1, scoring 15 points on 5-for-11 shooting, and getting to the free throw line six times. In addition to his scoring and rebounding, his excellent pick-and-roll play with fellow reserve Lou Williams makes the Clippers second unit once again the most frightening in the NBA. Williams scored 10 points in Game 1 on 5-for-9 from the floor. 

Kawhi Leonard scored 29 points on Thursday, on a fantastic 12-of-16 shooting. He’s continuing to show his dominant form in the midrange. Leonard has now hit 24-of-30 shots from 10-14 feet in the playoffs, a ridiculous conversion rate that is even better than a layup. Leonard has taken more advantage from the evolution of NBA defense in this regard than anyone else in the league. As teams focus more and more defending the three-point line and the paint, this real estate is often there for the taking. Leonard’s ability to score in the midrange is a key factor in Los Angeles’ league-best 121.5 offensive rating in the playoffs so far. 

All that said, this line feels too high. The Nuggets played very well over the last four games of the Utah series, and showed marked improvement on the defensive end of the floor. The matchup advantages Denver does have should be even more obvious in a Game 2 where fatigue shouldn’t be the primary factor. And, while the Clippers look stronger now, they have also been the beneficiaries of a fair bit of luck in the postseason so far. The team was trailing Game 1 against Dallas in the first round before Kristaps Porzingis was somewhat unjustly ejected, and were actually tied 2-2 before Luka Doncic hurt his ankle, and Porzingis missed out on the final two games with a knee injury. Add to that the scheduling boost for Game 1 against Denver, and the idea that the Clippers are in full juggernaut mode again seems a little too much too soon.