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NBA Western Conference opening-round betting preview

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After years of dynasties ruling the NBA, parity finally exists in The Association. For the first time since 1977-81, there have been five different champions in the last five years.

The West was loaded this season, which led to worthy teams missing out on the playoffs. But that's created intriguing first-round matchups between - as the odds indicate - evenly matched squads.

Below, we break down three Western Conference series and give picks for each. We'll cover the fourth and final series once the Thunder have their opponent.

(3) Timberwolves vs. (6) Suns

Series odds: Timberwolves +110/Suns -130

The Suns had the league's toughest schedule with 10 games remaining. They finished 7-3 against teams competing for playoff spots.

Phoenix's Big Three - Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Bradley Beal - only played 41 games together. However, they've all been healthy for the last month. The Suns are 26-15 and plus-6.6 per 100 possessions with those three in the lineup. Phoenix's offensive rating is on par with the league's best when they play together.

The Timberwolves' NBA-best defense carried them to their second-most wins in franchise history. Rudy Gobert is an exceptional rim-protector and Minnesota has numerous guard stoppers preventing penetration.

However, Phoenix's elite offensive firepower has ways to counteract Minnesota's D, which were showcased in its three wins over the Wolves.

The Suns have the NBA's most efficient pick-and-roll offense. Gobert's improved as a pick-and-roll defender, but he can't reliably guard in space. Minnesota's drop coverage defensive scheme is perfect for Phoenix, which shoots an abundance of pull-up jumpers and is toward the bottom of the league in paint points.

The Suns also sometimes run a small-ball lineup with Durant at center. Frank Vogel and the Suns' staff will try various tactics to keep Gobert away from the rim and eventually force him to the bench. (Look at targeting Gobert's under; his Game 1 points total is 13.5.)

The Suns averaged 118 points in three games against Minnesota - the most the Wolves allowed to an opponent that played them at least three times. Good offense trumps good defense.

The Wolves have the worst offensive rating among West play-in and playoff teams. Anthony Edwards is a budding superstar, but the Wolves have few reliable shot-creators and offensive threats beyond Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Phoenix's swarming defense gave Edwards fits. He averaged 14.3 points on 27% shooting from three and 31% from the field against the Suns, down from his usual 25 points on 35% from three and 46% from the field.

It's easier for the Suns to limit the Wolves' stars when Minny's supporting cast isn't trustworthy. Gobert is closer to a liability than a threat offensively and Jaden McDaniels is a defensive force but not a dependable shotmaker.

Phoenix's plan will force Minnesota's non-stars to beat them, and they aren't good enough to flip this series.

Bet: Suns -130

(4) Clippers vs. (5) Mavericks

Series odds: Clippers +105/Mavs -125

The Mavs ended the season as the league's hottest team, winning 18 of their last 20 games with Luka Doncic in the lineup.

Doncic is unstoppable in pick-and-rolls and isolation. When defenses double him and force the ball out of his hands, he has a supporting cast capable of making sound decisions and knocking down shots.

Dallas' offense will never be a concern with Doncic and Kyrie Irving at the helm, but its defense and rebounding haunted them the first few months of the season.

But following trade deadline acquisitions and a newfound effort level, the Mavs have the NBA's best defense over the last 15 games, and are an improved rebounding group.

Meanwhile, the Clippers have trended in the opposite direction over the past two months after an impressive January stretch.

Kawhi Leonard's decline and subsequent knee issue are a concern - he hasn't played since March. Without a healthy Leonard, L.A. has no chance in this series. He's expected to play Game 1, but that doesn't mean he's fully healthy or will last the entire series.

And even if he does, the Clippers have been a mess, especially defensively. Leonard and Norm Powell are the only Clippers with any championship pedigree, so don't expect them to flip a switch. James Harden hasn't looked like himself for the past few weeks and is also dealing with a lingering foot injury. Plus, Harden has a history of crumbling under the bright playoff lights.

Doncic versus Leonard is a heavyweight duel of clutch shotmakers, but Leonard's health will play a key role in who ends up with the belt.

Doncic relishes the chance to play the Clippers. He's averaged 33.5 points, 9.5 assists, and 8.5 rebounds per game against L.A in the playoffs (Doncic's Game 1 points prop is 31.5), although he lost both series.

The Clippers' offensive talent alone will push this series the distance; it's worth a bet for this to go seven games. And Doncic's Game 7 heroics will catapult the Mavs to the second round.

Bet: Mavs (-125), Series to go 7 games (+190)

(2) Nuggets vs. (7) Lakers

Series odds: Nuggets -310/Lakers +250

There's a mini rivalry brewing between the Nuggets and Lakers. However, a rivalry usually implies both sides are competitive, and that's not the case here: Denver's defeated L.A. eight consecutive times, including a series sweep in last year's conference finals.

Most games have been competitive, but the Nuggets - the NBA's best clutch team - always pull away late.

Nikola Jokic is the best player in the series. He and Jamal Murray have the league's best two-man game, and Denver's overall supporting cast is superior.

This series isn't about who wins, but how many games the Lakers last:

Series score Odds
Nuggets 4-0 +500
Nuggets 4-1 +285
Nuggets 4-2 +425
Nuggets 4-3 +340

Motivation and revenge are on the Lakers' side, but they don't have the personnel to compete with Denver.

The Lakers will attempt to put Anthony Davis on Aaron Gordon so Davis can serve as a floating defender and disrupt Jokic around the rim. But Gordon plays the dunker spot brilliantly and he and Jokic have developed uncanny chemistry. Jokic's court-mapping expertise breaks that defensive coverage.

LeBron James can turn back the clock for vintage performances, especially as his 3-pointer has blossomed, but he can't take over a series like he used to. The Lakers' defense, which ranks in the league's bottom half, won't have answers for the MVP and the Nuggets' top-five offense.

Given the tight finishes and variance factor, the Lakers should earn at least one win over a 12-game span going back to last season.

Bet: Nuggets 4-1 (+285), Nuggets 4-2 (+425)

Sam Oshtry is a sports betting writer at theScore. You can follow him on X @soshtry for more betting coverage.

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