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2024 NBA Playoff Picks & Predictions: First round best bets, futures, bracket breakdown

Welcome to a special betting preview of the first round of the 2024 NBA Playoffs!

While not every series is locked in yet as we await the results of this week's Play-In Tournament games, there are plenty of enticing NBA playoff futures on the board.

Today I’ll be taking you through a few of the key storylines heading into the playoffs and will offer some of my favorite picks for the first round in each conference.

Jump ahead here:

2024 NBA Playoffs: First round betting picks and predictions

Eastern Conference Best Bet

I have my eyes on one upset in particular in the Eastern Conference first round.

Even before news broke that Giannis Antetokounmpo was in serious jeopardy of missing (at least) the beginning of the Bucks series against the Indiana Pacers, I thought they were in trouble.

The Pacers opened at +205 in the series on Sunday, even though that’s since fallen to +100 I think there’s great value here. While the Pacers dominated the regular season series 4-1, that’s not the basis for this pick.

The Bucks are not a real team without Giannis. They are 4-5 on the season without him and their +2.7-point differential drops to a shocking -5.6 when he’s off the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s about the difference between a 47-win team and a 25-win team. Without Giannis, the Bucks aren’t a playoff team, let alone a contender.

The Pacers also have all the signs of a team that will be better in the postseason than they were before. Tyrese Haliburton had his own nagging hamstring issues that dogged him all season long. While he’s been playing consistently for weeks now, a full week of rest could see him rediscover his old form which had him in the MVP conversation.

This time off also gives Rick Carlisle time to install actual sets that take advantage of synergies between Haliburton and Pascal Siakam, something that is relatively unexplored because Siakam was a midseason addition.

The Pacers are also among the league’s best transition offenses, and while the Bucks have improved on their abysmal transition defense in fits and starts, they still rank near the bottom in efficiency and frequency of opponent transition scoring.

For all these reasons, the Pacers are my favorite upset pick of the first round.

Western Conference Best Bet

In the West, I’m turning to a series prop for my best bet of the first round: Luka Doncic to lead all players in points in the Dallas Mavericks series against the Los Angeles Clippers (-250).

Luka is a historically great playoff performer. Only Michael Jordan himself at 33.4 points per game has a higher average than Doncic at 32.5.

Luka is highly familiar with the defensive matchups against L.A. as well, having played them in two series already in his young career. In the most recent one, Doncic averaged 35.7 points in seven games against the Clippers in the 2020-21 playoffs.

Kawhi Leonard (+550) is the biggest threat to score more but he is a huge health question mark. Kawhi hasn’t played since March 31 due to inflammation in his surgically repaired knee. He might not play at all, might be on a minutes restriction, or might be nowhere close to his top form.

Paul George (+500) is a great scorer in his own right, but he’s not nearly as consistent of a playoff performer as Doncic. George has averaged 24.2 points over his last five playoffs, well short of Luka’s productivity. Kyrie Irving, for what it’s worth, averaged 22.2 points in the same span.

If PG or Kyrie has a down game, they’ll defer to others in the rotation. Doncic is going to score nearly 30 even if his shot isn’t falling. It’s just his mentality.

2024 NBA Playoffs: Favorite longshot futures pick

While the rest of my picks have been short odds bets, I’m comfortable laying a unit or more on, this last one is a longshot I’ll put at most half a unit down on.

I think there is real value in taking the New York Knicks to win the Eastern Conference at +1200. While many have crowned the Celtics winners of the East already, let’s take a closer look.

The Knicks are a good team. In fact, the only East team with a better point differential on the season is Boston, but the gap seems so wide between the Celtics (+11.3) and the Knicks (+4.9) that this seems like a foolish wager.

But there’s a method to the madness. Dan Feldman over at the Dunc’d On Basketball Podcast did an exercise this week that projected the net ratings of every team's playoff rotation, by only including lineups of players expected to see the court in the postseason using PBP stats.

By those numbers, the New York Knicks jump from +4.9 to +7. That number also doesn’t capture how much OG Anunoby will play in the playoffs, as he missed so much time with his elbow issue. The Knicks have dominated with Jalen Brunson and OG on the court together, and they’ll be playing 40 minutes or more in every close game.

The Celtics' playoff rotation net rating actually gets slightly worse to 10.4, narrowing the gap in quality between the two teams substantially.

The Knicks could very well lose in the first round to the Philadelphia 76ers or Miami Heat, but if they prove themselves in such a difficult first round series, I think they’ll have a much better chance of beating Boston than these long odds would suggest.

Eastern Conference bracket: Injuries cloud full picture

There is drama in the East everywhere but the top. While the Boston Celtics are sitting comfortably above the fray, every other spot in the standings was up for grabs heading into the final day of the regular season. But more important than seeding for some of these teams is health.

The two best players in the Eastern Conference are both under a measure of health uncertainty. Giannis suffered a calf strain on a non-contact play April 9 against Boston and was almost immediately ruled out for the remainder of the regular season.

Adrian Wojnarowski is reporting that the Milwaukee Bucks are preparing to start the first round without him. Calf strains are notoriously tricky and easy to aggravate, and the potential for reinjury is high if he rushes back.

Joel Embiid, meanwhile, made his return from midseason meniscus surgery and promptly helped the Philadelphia 76ers close their season on an eight-game winning streak. But Embiid tweaked his leg against the Orlando Magic on April 12. While he finished the game, he was held out of the finale against the Brooklyn Nets in a game that had massive seeding implications for Philadelphia.

If Embiid was fully healthy, he’d have played in that game. And since the 76ers have to play in to the playoffs, Embiid won’t have a week off for rest, but will instead just have two days off following the Play-In to get him right.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are also hoping Donovan Mitchell can get right before their first round series against the Orlando Magic. Mitchell has been a shell of himself since he suffered a bone bruise in his right knee. Treatment on the injury including a long layoff and a PRP injection have not seemed effective, and without a fully operational “Spida” the Cavs risk suffering back-to-back first round upsets.

Western Conference bracket: T-Wolves get bad break

In the West, the bracket broke in disastrous fashion for the Minnesota Timberwolves. They were in the race for the No.1 overall seed all season long, ultimately fell to third, and drew a Phoenix Suns team that is firing on all cylinders.

The Suns have also beaten the Timberwolves handily in all three games the teams played this season, maintaining a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter of all three contests. Anthony Edwards has struggled against the Suns' length as well, averaging just 14.3 points per game on 44.2% true shooting.

The Suns have been extremely inconsistent this season, but they just finished their gauntlet of a final 10-game stretch 7-3 and are playing their best basketball. Bradley Beal is finally looking like a genuine max contract player on both ends and Phoenix poses matchup difficulties for Minnesota on the perimeter.

Karl-Anthony Towns looks like a player who will need weeks, not days, to rediscover his rhythm post-surgery. That’s not time that Minnesota has to spare.

Having beaten them soundly twice in the past 10 days, the Suns will come in thinking upset and are favored in the series at -125 despite being the sixth seed to Minnesota’s three (+105).

Odds mentioned in this article were correct at the time of writing and are subject to change.

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