Updated 25 September, 2020
The NBA conference finals could best be described as a tale of two upstarts. In the Western Conference final, the Denver Nuggets (aka The Colorado Comeback Kids) are clinging on for dear life against the title favorites Los Angeles Lakers.
In the East, the Miami Heat, which bundled the highly fancied Milwaukee Bucks out of the playoffs, has dropped just two games in the postseason and now has a commanding lead over the Boston Celtics.
The Heat and the Nuggets have really been the two best team stories to emerge from the NBA’s Orlando bubble, with their combination of superlative team play punctuated by some stellar individual efforts, all-round grittiness and “never say die” attitudes. By contrast, their victims last round - Milwaukee and the Los Angeles Clippers - never really found solid footings in the league’s bubble surroundings, and ultimately fell to less-fancied, more gutsy opponents.
The Lakers and their talismanic GOAT contender Lebron James have been the biggest beneficiary, seeing their title odds shorten considerably this month. Markets now give them a 77% chance of taking the Larry O’Brien trophy home, compared with 30% three weeks ago.
With those odds, it’s a question of when, not if, right? Well…. assuming they can account for the Nuggets in the next few days, the Lakers will probably face a very hot Miami in the championship finals. One thing we’ve learned from these playoffs: It doesn’t pay to be a favorite in the NBA bubble.
Cloudbet takes stock of the two conference finals now underway, along with big market moves over the past week. Results and odds are current as of 8am UTC on Friday 25 September.
The Lake Show
Los Angeles Lakers title odds: 1.3/-325 (from 1.44/-225 on 18 September)
The Lakers line has improved as they established a 3-1 lead over the Nuggets, who are making their first conference finals appearance since 2009.
Much was made about the Lakers’ early bubble struggles, which saw their scoring fall to 106 points per game across their eight regular season contests. James and Anthony Davis were inconsistent, as were the rest of their scorers, and their title odds drifted as a result.
The Lake Show responded by destroying Portland and Houston in the last two playoff rounds, dropping only a game apiece to two offensive powerhouses with a combination of defensive versatility and re-inspired scoring. LA has averaged 114 points per game in the post-season, the third-highest total of all playoff teams.
Davis is the top scorer among players still competing, while James is third. True to his regular post-season form, The King has lifted his output: He pretty much runs the Lakers offence and is currently the playoffs’ assists leader, with 9 dimes per game.
Rajon Rondo has returned from injury to shoulder some of the playmaking responsibilities, and was instrumental in the Game 4 victory, a win that helped steady the ship after less-than-convincing performances in the previous two games.
Lakers Coach Frank Vogel observed recently that his team can let its concentration lapse if they pull ahead, and we’ve seen signs of that this week: LA had to rely on a Davis buzzer-beater to win Game 2, and trailed for most of the way en route to a Game 3 loss. They responded with a solid Game 4 effort, taking a first-quarter lead that they never gave up, on the back of superlative offensive rebounding and 60 combined points from Davis and James.
Despite their Game 3 hiccup, the Lakers look hard to stop indeed. Denver has already bounced back from two 3-1 series deficits in this post-season alone. Can they make it a third?
The line: Lakers to win series TBA; Denver (23.7/+2271)
The Colorado Comeback Kids
Denver title odds: 15.0/+1400 (from 10/+900)
In the last round, the Nuggets overcame Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers, which at one point averaged more points than any other unit in the post-season - and had been highly favored to beat the Nuggets in five games.
It seemed Denver cornerstones Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic weren’t paying attention to the odds and were able to spark three straight incredible second-half scoring efforts to overcome the Clippers’ lead. In instigating one of the worst playoff collapses in NBA history, the Nuggets became the first team to overcome two 3-1 series deficits in the same post-season.
“We’ve proven ourselves,” Jokic said after closing out the Clips. “Next is Lakers, another tough opponent for us, but we’re just going to be out there having fun. I would say [it’s about] effort and having fun. It’s simple for us.”
It’s been anything but simple so far against the Lakers, and from this point, a lot has to go right for Denver to pull it off against a squad led by a superstar hellbent on winning his fourth title. Take a view on how many more games Murray and Jokic can steal from LA.
The line: LA in five games 1.4/-248, in six games 4.02/+302.
Miami on a roll
Miami title odds: 4.5/+350 (from 4.5/+350 on 18 September)
Boston title odds: 15.0/+1400 (from 10/+900)
The Heat are the hot team at the moment after sweeping Indiana in the first round, rolling the Bucks in five and now have a 3-1 lead over Boston in the Eastern Conference finals.
Miami have found a way to develop consistency on both ends of the court in the bubble, where other higher-ranked teams have failed. All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler has closed out games strongly - as All-Star players should - leading a string of strong performances in the Miami rotation, most notably from Bam Adebayo, Goran Dragic and rookie Tyler Herro.
All four featured prominently in the three wins over the Celtics, highlighted by Adebayo’s epic denial of a Jason Tatum dunk attempt at the end of Game 1, and Herro’s 37-point effort in Game 4.
Yes, the Heat are in a groove, as they seek to get back to their first championship final since 2014. Butler, who is currently in the deepest playoff run of his eight-year career, made his intentions crystal clear after sending the Bucks home.
Making the conference finals "means a lot, but that's not my goal," he told reporters. “We want to win it. We want a championship and that's what we're focused on.”
Ominous for the Celtics, who came into this match-up after a bruising 7-game series against last year’s champions, Toronto.
On paper, the Celtics match up well against the Heat and have three supremely quick offensive weapons in Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker, who are effective in creating their own shots. Backed up by an on-fire Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis - one of the league’s most underrated big men - this team was up until recently favored to take the East.
They’re struggling to maintain consistency however, and their title line has drifted in the past week.
It’s worth pointing out that their three losses to Miami were close, and punctuated by plays that could have moved the results in Boston’s favour. In Game 2, the Celtics blew a commanding first-half lead and frustrations boiled over in the team locker room afterward. They came out swinging in an emphatic Game 3 victory, only to drop the following game.
Small forward Gordon Hayward returned from an ankle injury in Game 3 and his presence has made a difference in terms of his playmaking and versatility on both ends of the floor. The Celtics will need the rest of their squad to rally if they’re going to recover from their 3-1 deficit.
But hey, if the Nuggets could do it, not once, but twice?
Anything’s possible - in the NBA bubble.
The line: Miami to win in 5 games +2.34/+134
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