TST’s betting guide to the first round of the NBA Playoffs

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
The Sporting Tribune's Danny Burke shares his approach to handicapping the beginning stages of the NBA Playoffs.

It’s postseason time on the hardwood. The action begins this weekend and I’m here to get you ready with several wagers throughout round number one.

As always, make sure to shop the odds around the different sportsbooks you have available to yourself so you can guarantee the best price in your jurisdiction. 

I won’t be previewing every series, per se – but I will be sharing my analysis of the ones that I am betting, or have strong leans on.

Let’s begin…

#4 Los Angeles Clippers vs #5 Dallas Mavericks 

This Western Conference showdown features two teams that are capable of beating any team on any given night. The issue for both squads, however, has been their inconsistencies. 

According to, Dallas has been the most volatile team in the Association. If you’ve been paying attention to the league this season then you probably didn’t need a website to confirm that information. 

Offensively the Mavs are a top-10 team in points per game and efficiency differential. On the defensive front, though, their efforts can be deemed as questionable as they rank bottom-half in those categories. 

Those rankings cover their performance from the entire scope of this season. If instead we look at what they’ve done since the All-Star break, then we can see vast improvements. 

Since February 22nd, Dallas has ranked 10th in defensive effective field goal percentage (53.7%), according to 

Their additions of big-men Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington has benefited them greatly on that side of the ball. 

Conversely, the Clippers have regressed in that span of time. Since the ASB, Los Angeles ranks 19th in defensive eFG% (55.2%). 

And the status of arguably their most important player, Kawhi Leonard, is up in the air.

Leonard missed the final eight games of the regular season with right knee inflammation. There has been no word from the team in terms of his status for the postseason. 

According to, Leonard has the second-highest efficiency differential on the team (+10.1) only trailing Paul George (+13.8).

The unknown surrounding Leonard makes this series difficult to handicap in terms of the outright winner. But whether or not he plays consistently, the Clippers still possess a roster that’s filled with enough offensive talent to claim a couple of games.

Heck, Paul George has shot 50.9% from the floor and 45.9% from three-point land since March 1st. 

And let’s not forget that LA has home court advantage, too. 

When the series moves back to Dallas, I’m sure we will see the momentum swing and plenty more calls fall the Mavericks way (especially for Luka Doncic). 

Everyone seems to be selecting them to advance past this round and I can’t necessarily say I disagree, but I just feel a bit safer with the expectation of this series going deep. 

And that is a bet that is widely offered: the total number of games played in the series. 

There are different variations of it, too.

For example:

At DraftKings, you can bet the series’ total games played over 5.5 (-195). 

Or, the other way you can approach it is by playing the exact number of games played in the series. Unlike the bet I just listed (total games over 5.5 -195), this bet has to land on the precise number for you to cash your bet. 

For example: 

At BetMGM and DraftKings, you can bet this series to finish in 6 games at the price of +200. 

At FanDuel, you can bet on the series to conclude in 7 games at the odds of +230.

There is less room for error when you’re betting the exact outcome, but the benefit of doing so is to receive better odds. 

And in this example, you would be wagering on both of the exact outcomes – not just the one.

If I throw 1 unit on the series to end in 6 games (+200) and it hits, then I would win 2.00 units. 

If I throw 1 unit on the series to end in 7 games (+230) and it hits, then I would win 2.30 units. 

But, in order for one of them to win – the other has to lose. So you’d be subtracting a unit from each respective payout that I listed above. The winnings would either be +1.00 or +1.30. 

This is a better route to take than choosing to lay -195 on over 5.5 games played, though. While I’d only be liable for one wager, I’d still be risking almost the same amount as I would be in the case of betting both of the exact outcomes.

It would be a difference of risking 1.95 units to win 1.00 versus risking 2.00 units to win either 1.00 or 1.30. 

I’d only be saving .05 units if this series finished in 5 games or less, however, I’d be missing out on the potential opportunity to win .30 units more if it reaches 7 games. 

The possibility of a higher reward is more impactful than a minimal difference in risk for this wager. That’s why I’m choosing to attack it in this direction. 

Now, this isn’t a strategy that always presents a viable path. It really depends on how the prices are stacking up among sportsbooks. 

That is why I can’t stress enough how crucial it is to shop around and get the best numbers for this play. If you can’t get at least 2/1 or better on each of the two bets that I listed – then it’s not worth betting. 


  • LAC/DAL series to end in 6 games (+200); Risk 1.00 unit to win 2.00
  • LAC/DAL series to end in 7 games (+230); Risk 1.00 unit to win 2.30 

#3 Minnesota Timberwolves vs #6 Phoenix Suns 

We’ll keep things in the Western Conference where the trio of Anthony Edwards, Karl Anthony-Towns and Rudy Gobert look to overcome the triad of Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal. 

Phoenix has gotten the better of Minnesota this year, having won all three meetings. Two of them came in the month of April. 

As we all know, the atmosphere of the NBA regular season is much different than the postseason. You will be seeing the same team potentially seven games in a row. The intensity heightens, the adjustments being made are more precise and the reliability of your star players increase. 

This is a detriment to a team like the Suns. We saw it last year and we’ve seen it with numerous Kevin Durant-led teams in the past (excluding the Warriors). 

And what I’m referring to is the lack of depth that is presented within Phoenix’s roster. 

The Suns ranked dead last in bench production this season. Only 21.6 points per game came from non-starting players. They put so much weight on Durant, Beal and Booker that when the series gets deeper their energy will wane. 

In order to make a long run throughout the NBA Playoffs, you need role players to fill in the gaps during crucial moments. That’s not a theme surrounding this Phoenix group. 

Granted, the Timberwolves weren’t that far ahead of them. They ranked 21st in bench production (26.1 ppg). 

However, the edge that Minnesota has relies within the home court advantage and the defensive prowess that will break down the Suns.

According to, the T’Wolves finished 1st in both defensive points per 100 possessions allowed (108.9) and eFG% (51.7%). 

That will be the difference in this series. They will force the Suns’ role players into more looks and wreak havoc on the usual sharpshooters. 

The other key factor will be the emergence of Edwards this season (26 ppg, 46% FG) and the resurgence of Anthony-Towns, who missed over a month of time between March and April. 

There is not enough appreciation for this Minnesota team and what they’ve been able to accomplish. This is not their first rodeo either; they have been in this position and understand what it takes to win in the playoffs. And they’ll have a chance to do just that with their best team in years. 

Play: Timberwolves to win the series (+116); Risk 2.00 units to win 2.32 units

#4 Cleveland Cavaliers vs #5 Orlando Magic 

Among playoff contenders, seemingly no team has been as infuriating as Cleveland. 

If we take a look at the 1-6 seeds in both conferences, excluding play-in qualifiers and clubs that didn’t make the postseason, we can see that the Cavs were tied for the most blown leads this season among those 12 franchises. 

Cleveland and Indiana both had 31 blown leads altogether, including 13 of them specifically occurring in the fourth quarter. 

Some of that disappointment can be attributed to injury. Evan Mobley missed 32 games, Donovan Mitchell missed 27, and Max Strus missed 12. 

In the last two months of the regular season the Cavaliers finished 12-17. 

This was supposed to be a team primed to make a deep run in this year’s playoffs. They had established this roster last season, dealt with the adversity and hardship of getting eliminated early from the postseason in 2023, and were expected to make that leap forward. 

Granted, they still can – they just don’t exude the feeling as if they will. 

Regardless, they’ll have to get through a young and emerging Orlando squad to at least not consider this season a complete farce. 

The Magic are in the unique position that the Cavs were in last season. They are a youthful and exciting group that possesses the capability of competing with most teams in the league. Except, Orlando doesn’t have a four-time All-Star like Cleveland did / does with Mitchell. 

Nevertheless, like most inexperienced rosters in the NBA Playoffs, the Magic’s journey will probably be limited. It’s not a knock on them, or what they’ve accomplished – it’s just the nature of the beast this time of year. 

If there is one aspect of their game that could help them defy the odds, though, it would be their defense. 

Orlando comes into the postseason ranking 2nd in both defensive efficiency and turnover percentage, while holding their competition to below 109 ppg. 

They present a formidable front when defending their basket and will need to excel in doing so more than ever at this stage of the game. Primarily because of their offensive woes. The Magic rank 22nd in offensive efficiency and are averaging just 110.5 ppg. 

Cleveland isn’t much better on that side of the ball, though, ranking 18th in offensive efficiency. However, much like their upcoming opponent, they can hold strong defensively. The Cavs are 6th in defensive efficiency, 10th in turnover percentage and limit opponents to under 113 ppg. 

These clubs split a four-game series during the regular season with both being able to capture a win on the other’s home floor. 

The series price has ranged from the Cavs as low as a -180 to as high as -195 favorites. The best odds I’ve seen on the Magic are +165. 

As much agony as Cleveland has caused me as a bettor, and their fanbase on a weekly basis, I still believe them to be the right side in this first-round matchup. 

This Cavaliers roster has dealt with the adversity of the postseason unlike their upcoming opponent. And, they have a closer they can rely on in Donovan Mitchell; Orlando has yet to develop one of their younger guys into that stardom. 

With that being said, I would avoid laying the steeper price on Cleveland to win the series outright and instead would lay the spread at -1.5 games at the price of +130, which can be found at Caesars Sportsbook. 

If you’re unfamiliar, laying the series spread at -1.5 games means that the Cavs would have to win the series 4-0, 4-1 or 4-2. 

Play: Cavs series spread -1.5 games (+130); Risk 1.00 unit to win 1.30 

#2 Denver Nuggets vs #7 Los Angeles Lakers 

Can LeBron James and company finally snap the eight-game losing skid they are enduring against the reigning champions? 

It’s been more than a year and three months since the Lakers last defeated the Nuggets. 

And on their path to becoming the NBA champs, Denver overcame Los Angeles in the conference finals with a good old-fashioned sweep. 

It doesn’t seem like many people are envisioning the same outcome to come to fruition this time around. Though, the Nuggets are still a heavy favorite laying anywhere from -310 to -400 to win this series. 

Last year Denver claimed the top seed in the West by going 53-29, however, despite finishing with a better record this regular season (57-25) they fell to the 2-seed.   

The Nuggets bring back basically the same personnel, with the exception of role players Jeff Green and Bruce Brown. 

The Lakers have had bigger alterations within their roster. They lost Dennis Schroder from the starting lineup and Lonnie Walker IV from the bench. Their additions consisted of Jaxson Hayes, Spencer Dinwiddie, Taurean Prince, Gabe Vincent and Cam Reddish. 

Denver finished the year 4th in net rating (+5.5) in comparison to LA’s position at 19th (+0.6). 

According to, on the offensive side of the ball the Nuggets finished top-10 in efficiency and eFG%. Impressively enough, they claimed spots in the top-10 within those respective categories on the defensive end as well.

The Lakers offense was strong enough to finish 4th in eFG% and 12th in efficiency. Their defense struggled, however, as they ranked below average in both of those categories on that side of the ball. 

Pound-for-pound the defending champions still get the nod. Their starting five is incredible and they have the ability to rely on their role players to step up when needed. Denver’s bench production resulted in a ranking of 8th in offensive rating in comparison to LA’s spot at 27th. 

The favorite also attacks the glass exceptionally well with a rebound percentage of 51.5% (6th), whereas the underdog claims 49.6% of boards (21st). 

The Nuggets are still the best team in the Western Conference and will once again get past the Lakers. 

The difference this time around is that Los Angeles will probably claim a game or two; so I’d consider the series spread on Denver. 

Lean: Nuggets series spread -1.5 games (-140)