NBA playoffs betting: How to bet each first-round series

ByFantasy Staff ESPN logo
Saturday, April 20, 2024

How should you bet the first round of the NBA playoffs?

Here are our NBA betting experts Tyler Fulghum, Andre Snellings, Eric Moody, Jim McCormick and Steve Alexander with the bets they like most for each series.

Odds are updated as of publication. For latest odds go to ESPN BET

No. 2 New York Knicks vs. No. 7 Philadelphia 76ers

76ers to win the series 4-2 (+350). Jalen Brunson has averaged 34.8 points and 7.4 assists per game over the past 16 games, and the Knicks have been playing great, but I believe the 76ers will be too much for New York, especially without Julius Randle. Philadelphia has a 31-8 record in the games Joel Embiid has played, which is significant. The Knicks also rank last in pace, which actually benefits Embiid from a conditioning perspective. The 76ers should close this series out in six games. -- Moody

Knicks +1.5 games over 76ers (-175). I expect this to be an extremely tough matchup and could see it going either way. If I knew Embiid to be fully healthy and himself all series, I'd be more comfortable in the 76ers winning because he's the ultimate mismatch. But visibly, he didn't appear to be at his best in the play-in game against the Heat. The Knicks have built a tough, hard-nosed team that will defend and make the 76ers work for everything they get. And Brunson has averaged 37.8 PPG and 8.3 APG in his past 10 outings, providing the kind of scoring punch and creating the kinds of shots for his teammates that will allow the Knicks to make every game competitive. With the expectation of a tight series, I'll take the 1.5 games on the higher-seeded team with home-court advantage. -- Snellings

No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 6 Indiana Pacers

Pacers to win series 4-2 (+475). The Pacers have had the Bucks' number all season, taking the regular-season series 4-1; Doc Rivers has struggled in the playoffs; and Giannis Antetokounmpo sounds like he won't be available for the beginning of the series due to his calf injury. This is a perfect storm for the Pacers to bust out of the gate and steal Game 1 in Milwaukee, and if it happens, the series might be over. If you want to go all-in for the sweep, the Pacers' odds jump to +1100. -- Alexander

Bucks to win series (+110). The Giannis injury does appear to stack the deck against the Bucks, but stylistically Milwaukee might match better with the Pacers when not always playing two 7-footers together. The Pacers were able to out-quick the Bucks in the regular season, particularly Brook Lopez, but with Giannis out I expect to see more minutes with only one center and forwards like Khris Middleton or Jae Crowder at the 4. And I expect Damian Lillard's game to be unleashed, allowing him to engage in the kind of firefight he doesn't really get to do next to Giannis. Middleton and Portis will be keys, and I believe that core plays well enough to defend home court until Giannis is able to return and the Bucks find a way to win the series. It's rare to get plus money betting on the higher seed, but I think the Bucks are solid buy-low candidates right now. -- Snellings

Bucks to win series 4-2 (+500). We can leverage the mystery of Antetokounmpo's injury to our advantage in that if he is active by say Game 3 or even 4, and if the Bucks merely split at home during that time, then this series could become heavily tilted in Milwaukee's favor. Let's consider Giannis averaged 42 points on 68% from the field with 87 total free throw attempts in four games against the Pacers this season. The Pacers, after all, allowed the most points in the paint in the entire NBA. Rivers has his warts, and this Bucks team has sputtered at times since his arrival, but I'll still take my chances on a team that has two of the best three players and arguably three of the top five players in the series. -- McCormick

No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 5 Orlando Magic

Series goes over 5.5 games (-180). The Cavaliers and Magic are evenly matched, with similar rankings in points scored and allowed per 100 possessions. Although the Cavaliers have the edge in several important statistical categories, injuries to Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland benefit the Magic. With both teams being young without much playoff experience, this series could stretch to seven games, so I recommend taking the over. -- Moody

Cavaliers win series 4-2 (+450). The Magic could really struggle to score in this series. Sure, Orlando has its own hard-won defensive identity, but it also has a well-earned reputation for offensive woes. The Magic made the fewest 3-pointers in the league this season and now face a Cavaliers team that allowed the third-lowest percentage of makes inside the arc. Orlando struggled against top-eight defenses this season, with that trend including real scoring efficiency issues for Paolo Banchero against Cleveland. The Cavs have plenty of their own issues, but with more proven scorers, distributors and a duo of rim-protectors manning the paint, a decisive series win appears reasonable. -- McCormick

No. 1 Boston Celtics vs. No. 8. Miami Heat

Celtics to sweep (4-0) the Heat (+175). This is the fourth playoff meeting between the Celtics and Heat in the past five seasons. The Celtics won't underestimate the Heat in this matchup even without Jimmy Butler. Boston closed out the regular season ranked first in points scored per 100 possessions and third in points allowed per 100 possessions. Although the Celtics have struggled at times against zone defenses, Kristaps Porzingis excels at shooting over the top. Expect Boston to be extremely focused and easily sweep Miami in the first round. -- Moody

Heat (+3.5) over Celtics (-125). I briefly made the mistake of underestimating the Heat in the postseason. After Jimmy Butler's injury cost them against the 76ers in the 7-8 game, I thought his absence opened up to defeat by a Bulls team that had just blown out the Hawks in the 9-10 game. Instead, the Heat won by 21 points in a game that wasn't that close. With Eric Spoelstra coaching, and the ingrained and well-discussed "Heat Culture", it's hard for me to see the Heat getting swept. I'm expecting at least one game where they're able to successfully muck up the action with their zone defense and physicality, with unsung players stepping up to support Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro and they pull out a win. The Celtics should still be heavy favorites... I'm predicting the Celtics in five games ... but for almost even money, I'm willing to be the Heat won't be swept.-- Snellings

No. 2 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers

Nuggets win the series 4-1 (+275). The Nuggets finished the regular season with a 3-0 record against the Lakers. Los Angeles enters the playoffs with six wins in its past eight games. However, the Lakers' lack of depth might prove detrimental against a team as deep and talented as the Nuggets. Nikola Jokic shouldn't have trouble facing Anthony Davis, as he has averaged 27.8 points, 13.2 rebounds and 9.7 assists per game against him in the regular season and playoffs over the past two seasons. -- Moody

Lakers +1.5 games (+130). The Lakers have so famously struggled against the Nuggets, getting swept in last season's playoffs and losing all three regular-season matchups by at least eight points this season, that it's become "common knowledge" that they can't beat the Nuggets. Often "common knowledge" is proved wrong. In this case, the Lakers were competitive late in just about every game, and their lack of size and/or shooting was often the culprit in their demise. But their in-season adjustments, including moving shooters D'Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves back into the starting lineup, give their offense more versatility and punch. And moving Rui Hachimura into the starting lineup with Jaxson Hayes getting more rotation minutes at backup center gives them more functional size than they had last season as well. The Nuggets are rightly favored, but I believe the Lakers keep the series close, so I find value in getting the 1.5 games at plus money. I would also look for odds on Lakers +2.5, which you can likely get at solid value as well. -- Snellings

No. 3 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. No. 6 Phoenix Suns

Timberwolves win the series 4-2 (+190). Six seems to be the magic numbers in games played in most series, and I fully expect Anthony Edwards to put his team on his back and carry it through this series. The Wolves will have home-court advantage and were almost the No. 1 seed in the West, while the Suns have looked dysfunctional for much of the season. The Suns will be a scary test if Bradley Beal can keep it going, but I feel like Edwards is going to will his team to the series win. -- Alexander

Suns win the series 4-3 (+650). A deep dive into this matchup gets scary for Minnesota. Stylistic contrasts bode danger for the Timberwolves. Elite rim protection doesn't mean as much facing a Suns team that sits near the bottom of the league in points in the paint, all while thriving in the midrange and via the free throw line. The Suns can score in binges in areas Minnesota could struggle to counter. The Timberwolves have a budding young superstar and a special defensive identity in the paint, but it reads like an approach better suited for March than April. This should be a long and winding series, with the advantage going to the team with two world-class shot-makers. -- McCormick

Suns -1.5 games (+135). I live by this credo in the NBA playoffs: good half-court offense > good half-court defense. The Timberwolves are a great story and an ascending team led by Edwards, but I think they're better built for regular-season success at the moment. Phoenix is a team that is built to make the hard points look easy in the playoffs. -- Fulghum

Timberwolves +1.5 games (-165). The Timberwolves enter this series as the underdogs despite holding the higher seed and being tied for the best record in the Western Conference going into the last day of the season. The Suns have the biggest names in the series with their big three of Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal, and they won all three regular-season matchups against the Timberwolves by double figures. But, playoff basketball is different than the regular season. It is typically more physical and defensive-minded, and the Wolves are built for that game. With Karl-Anthony Towns back next to likely Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert in the middle, the Timberwolves should be able to control the paint and the glass. And Anthony Edwards has upped his game (and scoring average) in every playoffs of his young career, so I look for him to provide the scoring punch needed to allow the Timberwolves to at least be competitive, if not win outright. -- Snellings

No. 4 LA Clippers vs. No. 5 Dallas Mavericks

Mavericks win the series (-142). Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving are the hottest duo in the league right now, and the Mavs are jelling at the right time, going 16-2 over the final 18 games of the season until they shut everyone down for the last two meaningless games. Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard hasn't played since March, received an injection in his right knee and hasn't been cleared for 5-on-5 work yet. As long as Luka and Irving are healthy, the Mavs should control this series. -- Alexander

Mavericks win the series 4-2 (+350). With continued reports of Leonard's ongoing knee ailment, the Clippers are limping into the playoffs. The Mavericks, meanwhile, are built with the best framework around Luka Doncic of his career. The offensive rating spikes to best-ever peaks when Kyrie Irving joins the floor with Doncic, meanwhile added size and grit at the deadline appears poised to overwhelm a Clippers roster light on both of these elements. I'll even play some 4-1 action (+625) in this series. There was a time when the Clippers looked fearsome and formidable, but that time appears over. The series screams Dallas to me. -- McCormick

Mavericks -1.5 games (+125). Doncic is an absolute problem. It's only a matter of time before he wins his first NBA title, and this might be his best opportunity yet. The Mavs are primed for a deep run in this postseason, and that starts against an overvalued Clippers team. There's a reason Dallas is the favorite despite the Clippers owning home court in this series. -- Fulghum

No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 8 New Orleans Pelicans

Thunder (-2.5) games over Pelicans (-110). According to BPI, the Thunder have a 78 percent chance to win this series, with the most likely number of games as five. The Pelicans stepped up and defeated the Kings in the final play-in game to earn this matchup against the Thunder, and they've had some success this season withZion Williamsonout, going 7-5 in the regular season before the play-in win. But, the Thunder won both 2024 matchups against the Pelicans by 24 and seven points. The Pelicans won their November matchup by four points, but that game was in New Orleans and Zion went for 20, 10 and 8 in the win. Brandon Ingram's return is a positive, and CJ McCollum was playing great ball before struggling in the play-in, but overall I think the Thunder are the stronger team, healthier, playing at a higher level with home court advantage. I could see this series being a sweep, and don't think the Pelicans win more than one game. -- Snellings