It was the showdown the basketball world spent the entire season dreaming about:
L.A. vs. L.A.
LeBron and AD vs. Kawhi and PG.
The Lakers vs. the Clippers.
Last Thursday night, it seemed like a lock. The Lakers had just taken a 3-1 lead on the Houston Rockets, and the Clips were heading into a Friday closeout Game 5 against the Denver Nuggets, up 3-1 as well. Then Doc Rivers’ Clippers team fell apart. They blew a 16-point lead in Game 5. They coughed up a 19-point lead in Game 6. And on Tuesday night, while the Lakers, who had finished Houston in five, awaited their same-arena rivals, Kawhi Leonard and company unraveled in the second half and lost Game 7 by 15 points.
The Clippers are out. The Milwaukee Bucks, the best team in the Eastern Conference all season, are also out. The path to LeBron James’ fourth championship has been cleared.
The Lakers are now as high as -200 — you have to risk $200 to win $100 — in the view of some legal U.S. sports betting operators to win the title. All things being equal, a team should return 3/1 on a title bet with four teams remaining. But all things are not equal, and the Lakers are suddenly an enormous favorite.
While that -200 price (offered by DraftKings Sportsbook) is perhaps a tad steep, you can find the Lakers as low as -160 (lay $160 to win $100) at FanDuel Sportsbook and PointsBet. Is that good value? Or is there one more giant upset yet to come in these bizarre bubble playoffs?
All the betting odds
Here’s a look at the title odds for all four remaining teams at six notable online sportsbooks, bearing in mind that the Miami Heat currently hold a 1-0 lead over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals:
As for odds for each of the two conference finals series, the best prices on each team are Lakers -550 to beat Denver (at PointsBet and William Hill), Nuggets +450 to beat L.A. (at DraftKings and FOX Bet), Heat -150 to beat Boston (at BetMGM), and Celtics +136 to beat Miami (at FanDuel).
Back to the original question: Is -160 a good price on the Lakers, eight wins away from the title?
“The Lakers deserve to be clear title favorites at this point,” said US Bets analyst Rafe Bartholomew, a former basketball writer for Grantland.com, author of Pacific Rims, and co-author with Jackie MacMullan and Dan Klores of Basketball: A Love Story. “But too much has already gone sideways inside the bubble for me to feel comfortable taking them at -160.”
Bartholomew is referring specifically to the Heat upsetting the Bucks in five games in the second round and to the Nuggets rallying from 3-1 down twice in this postseason, including against a Clippers team that opened the series as high as a -1400 favorite to advance.
With home court advantage nonexistent as the entire postseason takes place inside the Orlando bubble, and with a four-month gap inserted into the season due to COVID-19, it’s logical that the teams with the best regular season records might be more vulnerable than usual. This isn’t quite the random roll of the dice that the NHL playoffs always provide (hockey fans might be headed for a 4-seed vs. a 7-seed in this year’s Stanley Cup finals), but bettors have to be extra wary of upsets these playoffs.
Youth movement in the bubble
Also, with teams mostly playing every other day, youth is being served, particularly as a series extends toward seven games. The Nuggets are being led by 25-year-old Nikola Jokic and 23-year-old Jamal Murray. The Celtics’ top players include Jayson Tatum, 22, Jaylen Brown, 23, and Marcus Smart, 26. As for the Heat, sure, their leader is 31-year-old Jimmy Butler, but he’s surrounded by the likes of Bam Adebayo, 23, Tyler Herro, 20, and Duncan Robinson, 26.
Meanwhile, four of the Clippers’ starters were 29 or older, and it showed in Game 7 on Tuesday:
Several Clippers were so fatigued during Game 7 against Denver that they struggled to play stints longer than three minutes and asked out of the game for a breather in the fourth quarter, sources told @TheUndefeated.
— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpears) September 16, 2020
Now, about those Lakers. LeBron is 35. Rajon Rondo is 34. Danny Green is 33. There are younger players in the mix too, including 27-year-old Anthony Davis, but … the longer these Western Conference finals go, the better it is for Denver, right?
“For all the credit Denver deserves for clawing back from consecutive 3-1 series deficits, it’s difficult to see them upsetting the Lakers,” Bartholomew opined. “Denver lacks wing defenders with the size and strength to trouble LeBron, and Anthony Davis beasted the Nuggets in their regular season matchups. Fans can feel free to back Denver’s inspiring run for as long as it lasts, but bettors shouldn’t.”
The bigger threat to L.A., Bartholomew feels, will come in the finals, especially if the Heat get there.
“Miami seems like a team that has fundamentally transformed from pre-bubble playoff also-rans to genuine title contenders,” he said. “Bam Adebayo has gone from All-Star to All-NBA level, Tyler Herro has stepped up from fun rookie with bad hair to vital rotation player with bad hair, and Jae Crowder has turned into a 45% three-point shooter for the first time since … forever.
“Gamblers who are willing to factor a hint of superstition into their decisions might also note that LeBron lost 14 straight games in Miami after leaving the Heat in 2014. There will be no Heat fans and no American Airlines Arena in a hypothetical Lakers-Heat bubble finals, but some bad juju still might find its way up I-95 to Orlando.”
Lose one, win four, rinse, repeat
It’s debatable whether the Lakers have had an easy playoff path to this point or have just made it look easy. Portland was a scary eighth seed coming in, until the Lakers rebounded from a Game 1 loss to dismantle them in five games. The Rockets were a scary small-ball three-point juggernaut, until the Lakers rebounded from a Game 1 loss to dispatch them in five games. Were these good matchups against tired opponents? Or proof of how formidable LeBron and AD are regardless of the quality of the spare parts around them?
Something for bettors to consider: The Nuggets will have two nights off before Game 1 and figure to be sharp on Friday against a Lakers team that won’t have played in six days, but a Lakers loss in Game 1 is no big deal for them. The Nuggets are as high as a +230 underdog in Game 1. And if they prevail, you might get a decent price on L.A. to win the series.
Then there’s this plot line, which has nothing to do with betting — unless you feel NBA refs can be counted on to favor certain teams — but is worth tracking just the same: If the Lakers win the 2019-20 NBA championship, history will not necessarily remember this season with a giant asterisk. It will be viewed as a legit title won by a team that was a preseason favorite, earned the top seed in the West, and took care of business under unusual circumstances.
If anybody else wins it all, many observers will attach an asterisk. It’s a small asterisk if it’s the Celtics. It’s a medium-sized asterisk if it’s the Heat, who didn’t look like a title contender at any point during the pre-pandemic portion of the season. And it’s a gigantic asterisk if it’s the Nuggets.
All signs are pointing to this being the Lakers’ year. But laying money on any favorite during this postseason is a risky proposition.
Photo by Kim Klement / USA Today Sports