The first round of the NBA playoffs went according to script, for the most part. A few underdogs were lively but, at the end of the day, only one lower-seeded team advanced (no. 5 Utah), and it did so by beating the Clippers, which can’t be labeled a surprise in April.
Cleveland (-550 favorites vs. Toronto) and Boston (-350 favorites vs. Washington) have jumped out to early leads in round two — as expected — and the Warriors are massive -3000 favorites to oust the Jazz. Betting the favorites in those series will net you a few drab pennies. Betting the underdogs will net you a loss.
But, like the generic plot line for a terrible fantasy epic starring Karl Urban, there is one series that can save us!
The Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs split their four regular season meetings this season, which each team winning once at home and once on the road. The biggest margin of victory in the four games was just six points. The other three were decided by a single bucket. Surprisingly, given how even they looked, the Spurs entered their second-round series as -260 favorites. The Rockets could be had for +220.
Best case scenario: you jumped on the Rockets a couple days ago, because Game 1 put everyone on notice that Houston is for real.
Houston ran the Spurs out of the AT&T Center, 126-99. They controlled the game from the opening tip and built a 30-point halftime lead. They were launching threes without hesitation (50 of their 87 FG attempts were from deep) and connecting at a high clip (44-percent).
Meanwhile, the defense was respectable, a massive compliment for the offensively-focused Rockets. Mike D’Antoni recognized that the key to containing San Antonio is making life hell for Kawhi Leonard. He threw double-teams on the Spurs’ MVP candidate all night and it paid off, with Leonard limited to 21 points on 36-percent shooting. The Spurs, as a team, shot just 31-percent from three, eight points lower than their regular season average, which led the NBA.
In the sober light of morning, the series odds have shifted pretty heavily. The Rockets are now -125 favorites, while the Spurs are +105. Nonetheless, Houston now represents the best value available in the second round.
Caution is called for. Don’t go throwing your whole bankroll on a Houston sweep or anything of that nature. The Spurs couldn’t have played much worse, and the Rockets couldn’t have shot much better. Both of those will regress closer to the mean over the course of the series, especially when you consider how well the Spurs shot the three during the regular season. But Game 1 showed a key trait that won’t be changing: the Rockets are the deeper team. Limiting James Harden to 20 points doesn’t mean keeping Houston’s offense in check. On the other hand, if Kawhi Leonard isn’t all-world for San Antonio, they’re going to struggle to hit triple digits, and that’s a massive problem. Houston was only held under 100 points five times this season.
In my humble opinion, D’Antoni has hit on a sustainable defensive strategy: put most of your energy into containing Leonard and force guys like Danny Green to take double-digit shot attempts. For a team like Houston, which only really has one plus-defender (Patrick Beverley), it’s the best option. While Gregg Popovich will have his team ready to go for Game 2, the Spurs looked overmatched and no longer have home-court advantage. Ride the Rocket to new heights.