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NBA playoff betting: Conference finals preview

Andrew D. Bernstein / National Basketball Association / Getty

Sometimes it's as easy as "fade Doc Rivers and James Harden in a Game 7," and that was certainly the case on Sunday, as the Celtics earned the final berth in the NBA's conference finals. We continue to look at how the point spreads have evolved as team ratings have changed after two successful series.

In Game 5 at Golden State, the Warriors were -7.5. In Game 6 back in Los Angeles - with no change in personnel - the Lakers were -3.5. That's an 11-point swing in spread valuation. Maybe there's a full-point "zig-zag" adjustment in there for the Warriors' desperation in Game 5, but the remaining 10-point difference suggests that there's more put into home-court advantage the longer a series - and a postseason overall - goes.

The Heat and Knicks saw a similar disparity, with Miami up to -6.5 after being +3.5 in New York two days earlier. The Sixers-Celtics series and Suns-Nuggets matchup had extra consideration for injury issues, but there were some big moves towards each home team. As a result, our market ratings estimation will have a little extra in the "HCA" column for the NBA's final four teams.

NBA team ratings

Celtics 79 79 4
Nuggets 76 75 5
Lakers 75 66 5
Heat 61 60 3.5

Western Conference finals: Lakers (+125) vs. Nuggets (-150)

Game 1: Lakers vs. Nuggets (-5.5, 222.5)

The Nuggets opened -5 in Game 1 with the Lakers. Given that we've gotten pretty comfortable with Denver having around five points of home-court advantage - it's 6-0 straight up and 5-1 against the spread at home - that line would suggest the Lakers' rating has moved up quite a bit from when they were underdogs against both Memphis and Golden State, to now being equal to the Nuggets'.

The Lakers' opponents were flawed beyond their record or reputation, so it shouldn't be surprising that the Nuggets have taken early money, even with the total dipping a point from open. Of course, the case could be made that Denver got a good draw with Minnesota and Phoenix - without Chris Paul and later Deandre Ayton - but the difference is that its rating has barely moved and thus not been falsely inflated.

Maybe the Lakers have found their groove and they are this good, but betting is not done in a vacuum, and we've got a pretty good position on the Nuggets from before the playoffs started. If you want to add to that, or jump in now, a -150 asks the Nuggets to win this series more than 60% of the time in order to be profitable, and that's pretty reasonable given they'd be around -200 in a potential Game 7.

Even giving the Lakers a fairly aggressive bump to a 71 rating would make the Nuggets -6.5 in Game 1 with no discernible rest advantage. So there's potentially some room for this to move. L.A. won each of the first two Game 1s this postseason, but, historically, LeBron James' teams were just 28-21 in series openers before this campaign, supporting the idea that he's not going to panic if Game 1 goes the way of an energized home side.

The Warriors' offense wasn't able to do more than fire away from the outside, but Nikola Jokic provides a far different defensive challenge for the Lakers, and they won't be able to keep up with the Nuggets' ability to outscore opponents over 48 minutes.

Game 1: Nuggets (-5.5)
Series: Nuggets to win (-150)

Eastern Conference finals: Heat (+400) vs. Celtics (-500)

Game 1: Heat vs. Celtics (-8, 210)

The Heat have gone from double-digit underdogs on the road in Milwaukee, and home underdogs in Round 1, all the way to the conference finals, and a constant rise in rating has gone with it.

Why might we be comfortable with that? A core that earned the 1-seed in the Eastern Conference last year and a recent Finals appearance certainly helps. Miami was one shot away from taking the Celtics' place in the NBA Finals one year ago but is a significant underdog this time around, despite Boston rarely displaying signs it deserves the highest rating in the league.

Jayson Tatum finally started showing Jimmy Butler-esque tendencies at the 11th hour against Philadelphia, and we'll admit the obvious - Boston is the better team due to a deeper supporting cast.

However, the way this series is priced, there's no way I'm willing to risk five units to win back one with a Celtics victory against the genuine edition of "Playoff Jimmy," especially with the possibility of a coaching mismatch in favor of Miami. I'd be more interested in taking a shot on the Heat to pull off another upset at better than 4-to-1.

Maybe the point spreads in Round 2 had more to do with a downgrade for the Knicks, but giving Miami decent credit for covering five of six games against New York, and a small adjustment for the Heat's rest advantage, I have the Celtics just under -7, meaning there's some value on the Heat at +8 in the opener.

Game 1: Heat (+8)
Series: Heat to win (+400)

Matt Russell is the lead betting analyst for theScore. If there's a bad beat to be had, Matt will find it. Find him on Twitter @mrussauthentic.

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