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With the NBA season set to tip off July 31, we're running through the best betting values to emerge from each conference.
In the East, Milwaukee is the prohibitive favorite after winning 81.5% of its games before the shutdown to seize control of the No. 1 seed. But we've seen this story before - just last year, the 60-win Bucks looked like they'd waltz to The Finals before the Raptors ripped off four straight wins in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Can Toronto do it again? Will another team emerge as the primary threat? Here are the odds to win the East and our favorite value plays:
Odds courtesy of theScore Bet
If the odds were a wash, the Bucks are clearly the pick out of the East. After a record-setting season, Milwaukee improved upon its winning percentage and is outscoring teams by 11.3 points per game. Over a full season, that's the third-highest scoring margin by any team since the merger, trailing the 1996 Bulls and 2017 Warriors. Good company, to say the least.
So why not bet them to win the East? Two things: price and precedent. The Bucks are clear favorites, but laying worse-than-even odds in a loaded field is just poor math, especially when we saw this exact situation play out last year. The Raptors laid the blueprint for toppling this group, which is why we'd rather bet on that happening again for much better odds.
Speaking of the Raptors, they might be the quietest contender in the field. Their net rating (+6.4) is second in the East behind Milwaukee (+10.7) and they were a scintillating 21-4 in the 25 games before the shutdown. So why are they lumped into a field of three teams with the second-best odds?
Nick Nurse knows how to beat this Bucks team, and he's employed similar strategies during the regular season - zone defense, clogging the paint, aggressively playing passing lanes - that show promise for another "blueprint" scheme against Milwaukee. This roster doesn't have a playoff closer the way it did with Kawhi Leonard, but at 8-1 odds, there are enough signs to suggest a similar run.
If another team can execute that game plan in a Bucks showdown, it's the Miami Heat, who have the same gritty approach that carried Toronto to the title a year ago. At full strength, the Heat's personnel allows the team to play suffocating zone defense (as Joe Wolfond explained in excellent detail), which helped fuel one of the league's best defenses earlier in the year.
The hiatus has helped the Heat get healthy for the first time since early February, when myriad injuries sent the team stumbling to a 7-9 record down the stretch. A refreshed Miami team's physical style should be a boon in what will likely be a lethargic environment in Orlando given the long layoff, and Jimmy Butler is among the few stars in the East who can buy a bucket without a crisp offense around him.
As for the other contenders? The Celtics were stumbling before the break, even with Jayson Tatum's explosive (and likely unsustainable) scoring boom. The C's are also 7-12 in games decided by five points or less - sixth-worst in the NBA - which supports the notion that Boston will struggle to close games without a clear finisher. The Sixers have shown who they are all season long, and expecting their on-court chemistry to finally click after a four-month layoff is a wasted bet.
Miami Heat (+1000)
The Heat are a clear fourth on the oddsboard among the Milwaukee challengers, but they're the best-equipped to rip off a three-series run and expose the Bucks' weaknesses in the playoffs. Miami is tied for the second-most wins against teams .500 or better, and its deep bench and physical style should thrive in the restart environment.
C Jackson Cowart is a betting writer for theScore. He's an award-winning journalist with stops at The Charlotte Observer, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Times Herald-Record, and BetChicago. He's also a proud graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, and his love of sweet tea is rivaled only by that of a juicy prop bet. Find him on Twitter @CJacksonCowart.