What makes the NBA playoffs unique from other sports is that the postseason is filled with legacy moments from the league’s megastars. What makes this year special is that it’s been quite the opposite. Giannis Antetokounmpo — gone after five games. Stephen Curry was sent home in the second round. The Suns' superteam with Kevin Durant only lasted six games with Denver. Heck, even LeBron James is staring at a 3-0 deficit. This year isn’t about the stars.
Sure, Nikola Jokic potentially making the jump from two-time league MVP to NBA champion will bring his legacy to a whole new level. Especially considering he will be doing it the old-fashioned way, rewarding the team that took a chance on him in the second with its first NBA championship.
Injuries have previously been the story for Denver’s demise, and in a year when they are finally healthy, it’s the availability of its depth that has made all the difference. While Jokic is certainly the catalyst, Denver’s brand of team basketball has overwhelmed even the toughest opponents led by the best players in the game. It’s not about the Nuggets superstar, but the confidence he has in the players around him.
Denver has a chance to sweep Los Angeles on Monday, in front of the Lakers' home crowd at the Crypto.com Arena. I will be on the Lakers to extend the series as 3.5-point favorites at BetMGM. I may be underestimating Denver’s greatness again. After all, I fell into the same trap a few times this postseason, but I still can’t see a sweep in this series. If Denver can put this Lakers team away in four games, I will tip my cap and pay the cost of a losing bet to see it.
However, it’s not an easy game to handicap if you are looking to bet a side. The Lakers' loss in Game 3, after being so dominant at home, really left me speechless and stunned. I have a few other bets that I placed for Monday, including a future Finals MVP that serves as a white flag for my Lakers in seven (+700) tickets. Let’s start with a way to bet the Lakers at plus money.
Halftime/Final - Lakers/Lakers +115
I know you’re probably wondering if I watched the first half of Game 3, and the answer is yes. I watched Jamal Murray eviscerate the Lakers defense for 30 points in the first two quarters, but I liked the way the Lakers battled back from a huge deficit to cut the lead to only three by halftime. It was only the second time the Lakers were outscored in the first half this postseason. Prior to their Game 3 loss to the Nuggets, the Lakers were 6-0 at home and 5-1 S/U in the first half during the playoffs. They have also done it with dominating performances. L.A. led Memphis 35-9 after the first quarter in Game 3, and outscored the Grizzlies by 17 in the first half of Game 5. Against Golden State, Los Angeles built halftime leads of 10+ points in two of the three games.
The Lakers could very well be running on fumes, and it wouldn’t surprise if Monday's fourth quarter was an insane sweat for spread bettors laying 3.5 points. If you are looking to avoid it, without backing Denver, I’d rather play it this way for +115 than pay $1.60 on the pre-game moneyline. If the Lakers aren’t winning at halftime, it’s probably time to get the brooms out.
Player prop - Rui Hachimura over 18.5 points, rebounds and assists
Darvin Ham has to push all the right buttons with his adjustments to help with the size disadvantage on defense. I am betting that it will lead to a bigger role for Rui Hachimura. L.A. can’t overcome the cost of D’Angelo Russell’s defensive liabilities, as Denver’s ball movement turns every team into a weak-link system. Giving more minutes to Hachimura and Schroder over Russell and Vanderbilt (who each get exposed on opposite ends of the floor) gives the Lakers a fighting chance to limit some of the runs that cost them in the first three games.
I am not going to get too granular and try to pin-point exactly where that allows Hachimura to contribute most, as the Lakers have no choice but to run with anything that yields success. Hachimura has surpassed 18.5 points, rebounds, and assists in three of four games against the Nuggets this season, and each of the last two games when he posted 24 and 20 (points, rebounds and assists). In a potentially increased role, I will play him to clear 18.5 in a must win.
NBA Finals MVP - Nikola Jokic -135
A Lakers win shouldn’t impact this price considering a team has ever recovered from being down 0-3. Now, if anyone can do it, it’s LeBron. However, I am going to side with the overwhelming historical data and bet under the premise that Denver will be playing in the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, who are also up 3-0. The Nuggets will be significant favorites against the Cinderella No. 8 seed, making the Finals MVP much more likely to be a player donning a Denver uniform. Jamal Murray is really Jokic’s only competition for the award. Murray has been outstanding, particular in the series with the Lakers where he is averaging 35 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
The NBA Finals will be Jokic’s time to shine. The Nuggets center has seven triple-doubles in 14 playoff games, and the story of the Finals will be the Serbian superstar delivering Denver its first NBA championship. Erik Spoelstra won’t let Murray get loose, making the optics on Jokic’s impact even more prominent. In a year when the Joker embarrassed voters for failing to award him his third straight league MVP, I highly doubt they get it wrong again. This might be the last time we can make this bet at a reasonable price.