NBA Playoffs: How to Bet the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks
The struggles of the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks has been a major storyline through the NBA restart. It reached fever pitch after both of these title favorites lost their opening games in the first round of the NBA playoffs. The Lakers looked sluggish against a hot Portland Trail Blazers team, while the Bucks were embarrassed by the Orlando Magic. However, both teams responded with solid bounce-back efforts in Game 2, with the Lakers and Bucks blowing out their underdog opponents. So, are both teams out of the woods? Will we see these powerhouses re-establish their championship bonafides and brush away their pesky challengers? Let’s take a look at the state of both teams.
Play: Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have had a strange return from the NBA’s lengthy hiatus. The team was rolling in March, and won five of six games before the season came to a halt. Before the restart, the Lakers had to deal with the loss of Avery Bradley, who opted out of playing, and an injury to Rajon Rondo. The organization responded by bringing in Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith, in the hopes they could provide some veteran depth to a thinned back-court rotation. The result has been sloppy and inconsistent, as head coach Frank Vogel tried out new lineup combinations, while allowing his key players to give less than a full effort in the seeding round, after the team locked up the top seed. The Lakers could not flip the switch for Game 1 against Portland, as they were outworked by a hungry Blazers team, who beat them 100-93. The gap in effort was most telling on the glass, where an undersized Portland team, without the services of Zach Collins, managed to grab 65 rebounds, the same amount as a huge Lakers team. This was key in staving off the Lakers.
More worrying for Los Angeles was the continued stagnation of the offense. The Lakers scored a pathetic 37 points in the second half of a close game, and shot a woeful 5-for-32 from three-point range. In Game 2 the Lakers responded, scoring 111 points in a 23-point romp. The three-point shooting was solid but not spectacular, as the Lakers made 14-of-38 shots from beyond-the-arc. The Lakers also out-rebounded the Blazers by six.
Game 2 is what the rest of the series should probably look like. While Portland had the advantage of playing meaningful games through the seeding round, the advantage now moves to a physical and big Lakers team, who can start to wear down the Trail Blazers. Zach Collins is about a week away, at best, from returning. Portland looked gassed in Game 2, and it’s going to be hard to find a new source of energy as the Lakers front-court continues to wear it down. While the Lakers still need to be better on offense, this is a great matchup in that regard. Portland ranked 20th of 22 bubble teams in defensive rating during the seeding round. However, in fairness to the Blazers, the team also ranked first in the bubble in opponent 3-point percentage. The outside shots may not be reliable for the Lakers here, but Los Angeles should be able to dominate the paint from here on out.
Importantly, Damian Lillard dislocated his left index finger in Game 2. While the always-defiant superstar has announced he will be playing in Game 3, if he’s at all limited, Portland will have an incredibly hard time competing against the Lakers. Perhaps no team in the league is more dependent on any one player’s offense than Portland is with Lillard. He is essential to opening up opportunities for his teammates, and if the Lakers do not have to obsessively tend to him, consistent offense will be almost impossible for Portland.
Fade: Milwaukee Bucks
To be clear, the Bucks will almost certainly come through this series. Game 1 was probably something of an aberration, and now that Orlando clearly has Milwaukee’s attention, the gap is likely too severe for the Magic to mount any serious challenge. However, the lines in these matchups are certain to stay very high, no matter the result of any given game. If the Magic manage to steal another game, the line could even go higher, as it did for Game 2 after the Bucks’ dropped the opener. If Orlando keep losing, money will likewise probably continue to come in on Milwaukee, as bettors start to trust them again.
However, all is not right with Milwaukee, and unlike Los Angeles, the Bucks’ downturn in play did not just commence with the restart. The Bucks began the season 52-8 SU. Since then, Milwaukee is 5-10 SU and ATS. The Bucks dropped four of five before the season was halted, then four of eight in the seeding round, and one of two in this series so far. Over the last 13 games before the playoffs, the team had a net rating of -2.8, 20th in the league over that span. In the two games against Orlando, whom the Bucks dominated in the regular season, Milwaukee has a net rating of only +2.9. A 15-game stretch is not a blip, it’s a sign that something may not be quite right. The Bucks were on cruise control by March, and have yet to fully grab back the wheel.
Even Game 2, in which the team played much better, there were signs that things may not be fixed. To be sure, the defense was fantastic in the first half of the game, but the Magic also missed some very good looks en route to a hideous 4-for-35 start from the field. Despite that, Orlando scratched and clawed, eventually closing a huge gap to only nine points, and somewhat making a game of it in the final frame. The Magic failed to cover, but in the end, only lost by 15 points as a 13-point underdog, in a game in which they were destroyed over the first two quarters.
Orlando obviously does not expect to win this series, but has the look of a team playing with house money. The Magic look at ease even when things aren’t easy, and the fact that they were motivated enough to put that second half effort in bodes well for bettors. The offense will continue to be a question mark, but the play of Nikola Vucevic should give people confidence that the Magic can hang tough against what are sure to be double-digit spreads. Vucevic is averaging 33.5 PPG on 28-of-47 shooting. He’s going to continue to get a ton of looks. He’s a great midrange and outside shooter for his size, and Milwaukee so far have chosen to let him get his, while trying to smother the team’s less polished offensive players. This is a good strategy when it comes to getting wins, but it should allow Orlando to stay within touching distance so long as the center continues his excellent play.
While the series history clearly favors the Bucks, a look back at the matchups this year from a betting perspective is another reason to lean to Orlando. Milwaukee were 12 and 11-point favorites in two December matchups, a month in which the Bucks went 13-2 SU. The most recent meeting came on February 8, when Milwaukee was in the midst of a 20-2 SU stretch. The Magic were 8.5 points underdogs for that game in Orlando, and came at a time when the Bucks were navigating a brutal week of travel. Now, in the neutral, controlled environment of the bubble the Magic is still a 12-point dog for Game 3. But, as discussed above, a bet on Orlando is a bet that Milwaukee still aren’t what they were in the winter.