When it comes to postseason NBA hoops, make no mistake about it – all underdogs are not created equal. Hell, truth be told, all favorites aren’t either. Some dogs offer a bunch of upset value because of the way they match up against their opponents while others could be offering better value than expected because of injuries or other myriad issues with their opponents. With that thought in mind, I’ve identified the top three first round series underdogs that could all pull of series-clinching upsets over their favored opponents. With the start of the NBA playoffs here, let’s get down to business.
NBA Playoffs Betting: Series Underdogs Worth a Wager up to the moment
Indiana vs. Miami
T.J. Warren and the Indiana Pacers (44-28) are my No. 3 pick to pull off the first round upset when they take on Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat (44-28) in Game 1 on Tuesday. I know the Pacers have dropped all three regular season meetings, including a 114-92 smackdown on August 10 inside the bubble, but these two Eastern Conference rivals are a lot closer in talent and production that those results indicate.
While Miami finished 15th in scoring (112. ppg) and 10th in defense (109.1 ppg), Indiana finished 23rd in scoring (109.4 ppg), but a stellar third in points allowed (107.5 ppg). The Pacers also finished sixth in field goal defense (44.8%) and fourth in defending the three-point shot (34.1%) while ranking a surprisingly efficient second in field goal shooting percentage (47.6%).
Both teams have an identical, seven double-digit scorers on their respective rosters and although Indy is without all-star forward Domantas Sabonis (18.5 ppg, 12.4 rpg) they’ve seen team scoring leader T.J. Warren take his game to an insanely high new level as he’s put up 31.0 points per game in six bubble contests while dropping 53 on Philly and 39 on the Lakers.
Last, but not least, these two rivals finished with identical 44-28 records. Not only that, but Miami has dropped three of four heading into their playoff opener while Indiana took two of their three final games inside the bubble by sandwiching wins against the Lakers and Rockets around their loss to Miami. Oh and just to boot, the Pacers are a robust 6-2 ATS in the last eight meetings.
Oklahoma City vs. Houston
Chris Paul and the underrated Oklahoma City Thunder (44-28) are my No. 2 upset pick as they get set for their series opener against James Harden and the Houston Rockets (44-28). First off, these Western Conference championship hopefuls finished with identical 44-28 records. If that isn’t an indicator that Oklahoma City is at least Houston’s equal, then consider the fact that the Thunder have taken each of the last two meetings against the Rockets after losing their first regular season meeting by a pair of baskets.
Then, there’s the fact that the Thunder have an elite defense that ranked seventh in points allowed (108.4 ppg) and matches up well against Houston’s second-ranked offensive attack (117.8 ppg). While Oklahoma City finished an uninspiring 21s in scoring (110.4 ppg), they’ll be facing a Rockets defense (if you can call it that), that finished 23rd in point allowed (114.8 ppg).
Not only that, but while Houston has six players averaging double figures in scoring, the Rockets get a whopping 61.5 points per game from James Harden (34.3 ppg) and Russell Westbrook (27.2 ppg), the latter of which could be at less than full strength as he sits out the series opener at the very least with a quad strain.
Last, but not least, I like Oklahoma City’s pair of competent big men (Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel) and offensive balance a lot better than I like Houston’s two-man attack. The Thunder have five players averaging double digits in scoring and I genuinely believe they have the best backcourt trio in the league in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (19.0 ppg), Dennis Schroeder (18.9 ppg) and future Hall of Famer Chris Paul (17.6 ppg). One other thing to keep in mind, Oklahoma City is 5-0 ATS in the last five meetings. Make no mistake about it, Oklahoma City has a great chance to pull off the upset in this first round pairing.
Portland Trail Blazers vs. LA Lakers
There’s no sense in beating around the bush. Like lots of NBA analysts and viewers, I love the way the Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers (35-39) are playing right now and I genuinely believe they are offering a ton of value as a value-packed +390 upset pick over LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers (52-19) in their highly-anticipated first round showdown.
Portland went a blistering 7-2 after the restart while reaching the playoffs by beating Memphis 126-122 in their play-in showdown on Saturday. Conversely, the Lakers went an uninspiring 3-5 in the bubble while suffering humbling, double-digit losses against Toronto, Oklahoma City, Houston and Sacramento and another five-point defeat against Indiana.
While LA is the much better defensive team in this matchup, Portland’s sixth-ranked scoring attack (115.1 ppg) looks like it could easily keep pace with a Lakers squad that put up 113.4 points per contest this season (11th).
Los Angeles has just four double-digit scorers on their roster, but they get 51.4 points per game from LeBron James and Anthony Davis while no other teammate averages more than Kyle Kuzma’s 12.8 points per contest. Conversely, Portland has six players averaging double digits in scoring and are led by one of the very best backcourt duos in the league in superstar point guard Damian Lillard (30.0 ppg) and shooting guard C.J. McCollum (22.3 ppg). Center Jusuf Nurkic (18.1 ppg), is proving to be far better than anyone really knew and future Hall of Famer Carmelo Anthony (15.5 ppg) looks perfectly suited in his role as a sweet-shooting sniper in Portland.
In the case of Lillard, he – and not James – could be the best player for either team in this series after putting up a mind-boggling 37.6 points and 9.6 assists per game in the bubble. Lillard has gone bonkers in scoring a mind-boggling 175 points over his last four games while torching Philly for 51 and Dallas for 61.
While the Blazers will miss veteran forward Trevor Ariza, the Lakers are without their own defensive ace in Avery Bradley and are awaiting the return of floor leader Rajon Rondo. More importantly, Portland has a genuine superstar leader in Lillard that has a never-say-die mentality and one whose reputation for being one of the game’s best clutch performers is more than well-deserved.
“They’re the No. 1 seed in the West for a reason,” Lillard said after Portland’s play-in win “They’ve got the best player in the world on their team. But at the same time, we didn’t fight as hard as we fought in the bubble to just say, ‘All right, we’re the eighth seed’ and just go out here and get beat up on.”
“We feel like we have a chance in a series against anybody in this league,” Lillard added. “We feel like we’ve got a chance in this series. That’s how we’re gonna approach it.”