NBA Betting Preview: Wounded Warriors look vulnerable as playoffs start

Stephen Curry
Stephen Curry's health casts doubt on Golden State's playoff hopes
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The Western race for final playoff berths went down to the wire, while the East looked settled long before, reflecting the current competitive balance in the league. Here's how the 16 remaining teams enter the final stage of the season...

"The crucial factor in this bumpy period is Stephen Curry's knee. If he can get back on the court and producing, then the Warriors can still make it three titles in four years. If he can't, it becomes more doubtful."

NBA Playoffs 2018
From Saturday April 14th
Live on Betfair Video and BT Sport

While it's tempting to look at the Western Conference finals as the likely championship decider, there are a couple of X-factors in the East that should give the representatives of the weaker conference a fighting chance.

The defending champion Warriors still stand as favourites in the outright market, the team with the best record in the league, the Houston Rockets, look very well placed to challenge them if they meet in the later rounds.

Here's a breakdown of each remaining team ordered by their price in the Exchange NBA Winner market...

Golden State Warriors

Given the run of recent seasons, the Warriors rivalry with LeBron's Cleveland teams is one many expected to see renewed in 2018's finals.

For most of the season it looked like the Cavs would be the side who failed before the Finals, but recent weeks have seen doubts build around the Warriors prospects.

Golden State have been bested by the Rockets in their own conference, and look vulnerable to other challenges now, as they back into the playoffs having lost ten of their last 17 games.

The crucial factor in this bumpy period is Stephen Curry's knee. If he can get back on the court and producing, then the Warriors can still make it three titles in four years. If he can't, it becomes more doubtful.

They do still have Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, but they've all had time off this season too, and the odds are against Golden State if Curry cannot play against the best teams as the rounds progress.

They'll face San Antonio in the first round, a rematch of last year's conference championship. The Spurs, clearly, have their issues too, but this is not a slam dunk for the battle-scarred Warriors, and the sooner Curry returns the better.

Golden State are still favourites for the Championship on the Exchange, priced at [2.44], but I'd want a bit more certainty about their best player before taking that.

Houston Rockets

The Rockets have delivered on their preseason promise. They already had the MVP-level talent of James Harden last season, but needed to find a more balanced approach defensively if they were to make the most of their offensive power.

Chris Paul's signing from the Clippers signaled their intent. Though not the defensive presence he once was, CP3 still offers plenty in the back court, and was an upgrade in simple offensive terms on Patrick Beverly.

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Augmented by their other additions, the Rockets have kept pace with Golden State in scoring, while improving from 18th to 7th best defence year-on-year. They've also become the league leaders from three-point range, 40% of their scores coming from outside the arc.

Since January 26th they're 31-4, with two of those losses coming after they'ed already secured the top seeding in the league. Anything less than a run to the Western finals will have to be considered a disappointment.

They're available at [3.3] in the NBA Championship market at the moment, and there are much worse bets out there.

Cleveland Cavaliers

As so often before, the Cavs have had a turbulent season. Their moves from the offseason largely failed. Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder were dumped at the trade deadline to rejuvenate the starting line-up, and several veteran bench players were also cut or traded to give the team more legs.

Coach Tyronn Lue was forced from court side by health problems, and, as if that was not enough drama, the fate of the sun around which the NBA galaxy revolves, LeBron James, hangs in the balance as his contract expires this summer.

All options are on the table regarding James' future, and a playoff meltdown by the Cavaliers could seal the fate of the franchise if LeBron decides he can't be bothered with digging this club out year after year.

Cleveland have, of course, endured rocky patches in previous season and still secured the East's spot in finals. With LeBron capable of single-handedly dragging rosters through playoff series, they still should not be ruled out.

Their price reflects that, where they are ranked third favourites for the title, albeit at [10.0]. That could be a nice investment if LeBron does what he usually does in the playoffs.

Toronto Raptors

Toronto topped the Eastern conference and, unfair as it may be, it's tempting to read the Raptors 59 win record as a sign of other teams regression rather than their strength.

While their likely conference challengers have suffered issues throughout the year, Duane Casey's side have been solid. Their strong performance has been built on their record at the Air Canada Centre, with only the league-leading Rockets matching their home record this season of 34-7.

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We've been here before though. They've won the Atlantic division in four of the last five seasons, but have only managed three series wins in that span. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have been there through those disappointing years, and need a run to the Finals to show they belong among the NBA elite.

The Canadian outfit face Washington in the first round, presenting and opportunity to exorcise some postseason demons, though their April and May troubles are reflected in their price for the title, standing at [13.0] going into game one.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers lead a group of teams who are surging into the postseason with runs of dazzling form in the second half of the season.

Their intriguing potential as dark horse contenders is based on the 16 game winning streak they're currently on despite the loss of centre Joel Embiid in late March.

Embiid has been the pivot around which their offence revolved this season, but a facial fracture has seen him sidelined in recent weeks, and he will likely miss games in their first round series, if not beyond, due to the complaint.

This has not, however, impeded Philly. Their young side, led by Australian point guard Ben Simmons, has thrilled fans who've suffered through years of tanking and misery in the hope that stellar talents such as his would, one day, pay them back with titles.

This season might be too early, but they are a coming force, and available at [23.0] for those who are looking for a longer shot. Their price in the Eastern Conference winner market is also interesting at [5.0] given their form.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder aren't quite in the same blistering form as the Sixers as they roll into the postseason, but they can take heart from a last week's defeat of the Rockets that saw Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony all score over 20 points.

Since that game, George has hit 27 points against the Heat and chalked up 40 on Memphis to close the season and secure fourth seed in the West.

Russell Westbrook is the leader of this team, but George will be crucial if the Thunder are to challenge the top two in the West for the Finals spot.

OKC have tightened up defensively thanks to George, and his scoring could be decisive if Westbrook can get him the ball. The Thunder are a dangerous team if these two click. They are [38.0] in the outright market and [25.0] for the Western Conference currently because they've blown so hot and cold this season. If they get hot again...

Portland Trail Blazers

Two more teams from OKC's Northwest Division come next in the betting, with Portland, third seeds in the West, a longer price than the Thunder despite their surge in the closing months of the regular season.

Led by All Star guard Damian Lillard, the Blazers lived up to their nickname throughout the spring. Going 17-3 from Valentines day to April 1st - a run that included a 13-game winning streak - Portland moved from a possible seventh or eighth seed at best to a team expecting home court advantage in round one.

They almost threw that away in the last fortnight, with a four-game losing bounce before taking out Utah in their last game of the regular season, but the quality of Lillard's play this season means they're [1.5] favourites to progress against New Orleans.

They're currently [75.0] for the NBA title. They could give Golden State a fright if they meet in the next round, especially if the Warriors' injury woes continue.

Utah Jazz

The trajectory of the Jazz's season mirrors that of Portland, except the turnaround from their season opening was even more spectacular.

The Jazz opened the season 19-28 before winning 29 of their last 35 games to turn what looked like being another playoff-less season into a fifth seeding.

Utah's identity in recent years has been strong defence, and centre Rudy Gobert still delivers that - the Jazz allowed the fewest points in the league this season - but rookie Donovan Mitchell has been a revelation at the other end of the court.

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In that final 35 games stretch, the Jazz outscored their opponents by 12 points per 100 possessions, the best record in the whole league over that time.

Playoff series allow coaches to drill down on players, so Mitchell could get worked over in the crucible of the postseason. With the Jazz's prospects at [80.0] for the title, they will need the youngster's scoring to continue if they're to upset the market, though upsetting Oklahoma City seems a more reasonable ask at [2.28].

Boston Celtics

It was all looking so good in Massachusetts before Christmas.

The Celtics lost just four of their opening 26 games, a much-changed roster took the league by storm, despite the loss of Gordon Hayward on opening night, with young players like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown stepping up, and Kyrie Irving was proving he could be the number one guy for a league challenger.

Since December though, their momentum has stalled. They've ceded the top spot in the East to Toronto, and the injuries have accumulated. Kyrie is done for the season, and Marcus Smart is a doubt for their opening round series with the Bucks. Al Horford is leading them into the opening round of the playoffs.

Coach Brad Stevens has shown to be a canny manager of young talent, and is capable of getting more from this roster than the sum of its parts. He is a potential difference-maker in tightly fought series without their leading stars, but it seems a long-shot that this depleted team can beat the best from the West should they force their way to the finals.

They are available at [18.0] to win the Eastern Conference, and a whopping [120.0] to win it all, despite their second-placed seeding in the East. That says a lot.

San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs are not used to being in this position. Perennial playoff contenders, their season, on the outside, looked to be chugging along nicely despite Kawhi Leonard's absence early on.

Since Kawhi's return, and subsequent decision to not play despite being medically cleared by Spurs staff, San Antonio's position in the standings has dropped from a likely third seed to seventh.

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It could have been worse.

Their run of playoff appearances under Popovich now stretches to 20 seasons, but that is little cause for celebration given the murky future of their star player and the absence of an obvious pretender to his position should Leonard look to force a move this summer.

Saying all that, this is still the Spurs we are talking about. It's hard to see them making a run all the way at [110.0], barring Leonard suddenly changing his tune, but no one will want to play them because they are so damn tough. They're priced at [6.8] to beat the Warriors, and if anyone can come up with a plan to stifle a hurt Golden State team, it's Coach Pop.

Milwaukee Bucks

Expectations were so high going into this season for the Bucks, it was always going to be difficult to live up to them.

Still, with the unique talent of Giannis Antetokounmpo on your roster and healthy, it's hard not to feel that 44 wins and 7th seed is underwhelming for a team that some fancied to challenge for the Eastern title this year.

At least they've made it this far though. At the half-way point of the season it looked like they could drop out completely. Jason Kidd was fired, and, though things didn't get much better, they didn't get worse.

Milwaukee have several interesting supporting pieces around Giannis, including former Phoenix Sun Eric Bledsoe, and the often injured pair of Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker. They also have the potential to get past the Celtics in round one, though I'd like more than the [2.38] on offer at the moment. I'd rather back them to win the Eastern Conference at [38.0] then trade on them if they get past Boston.

Washington Wizards

So often flattering to deceive in the regular season, the Wizards can at least go into the postseason, as eighth seeds in the East, free of the burden of expectations.

John Wall is returning from injury. Their talisman has missed 41 games this season, which goes some way to accounting for their lowly placing in this season's mediocre East.

But only some way, not all the way.

The Wizards went 5-11 down the stretch. If they'd only won against an Orlando team with nothing to play for they could have avoided the Raptors and instead faced the hurting Celtics in the first round.

Still, Wall's return is cause for some hope. They have a historical hold over the Raptors, with much the same stars playing each other in those previous series, so the [6.2] available on them to win this series might appeal to some.

Even if they were to upset the odds here, they likely face LeBron in the second round, so I wouldn't expect them to go much further.

New Orleans Pelicans

It would've been easy, maybe even expected, for the Pelicans to have crash-landed following DeMarcus Cousins's torn Achilles.

However, in the three months since the team has rallied. It's important they've shown some fight, because Anthony Davis won't want to hang around NOLA if this team does not show progress soon.

Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo have been crucial to the Pelicans successful run post-Cousins of 21-13. With Davis being mentioned as a MVP-worthy candidate, New Orleans will not be intimidated by Portland in the first round.

Going further in a stacked Western Conference could be beyond them though. They are big outsiders at [290.0] for the title, but are available at [2.88] to get past the Blazers.

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Minnesota Timberwolves

The bigger picture for Minnesota in this very tough season is that they've ended a thirteen season playoff drought by locking up the eighth seed in the West.

Their play-in win over fellow Northwest Division rivals Denver means the weight of history will be just that little bit lighter next season.

Jimmy Butler's torn meniscus saw the Timberwolves buckle this year just when their season could've taken off. They have the immensely talented Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins alongside Butler. If they can get these three pieces working together the sky is the limit.

For now though, the limit is Houston. Butler is back playing, but not at 100%. He can win games on his own, but it will take a superhuman effort for Minnesota to beat the Rockets. The T'Wolves are [11.0] just to win the series.

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Miami Heat

The Heat secured a creditable sixth spot in the East, and their reward is a meeting with the buzz-saw that is the Philadelphia 76ers.

One thing the Heat have going for them in this match-up is experience. Eric Spoelstra has the championship runs under his belt. Dwayne Wade the same.

Goran Dragic made an All Star bow in place of Kevin Love this season, and has been around the league along time, while Hassan Whiteside is also a seasoned campaigner (though his behaviour sometimes suggests otherwise).

Miami have some talented players, but it's hard to see them challenging a team like Philly at the moment. They're [4.4] to win the series, and I would personally prefer longer odds.

Indiana Pacers

The surprise team of the season. Everything looked so awful for the Pacers after Paul George forced them to move him before his contract expired.

As part of his trade they secured Victor Oladipo. The guard has scored at a rate that suggests his year with Russell Westbrook may have been a frustrating one.

He's set career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks this season. Clearly he felt he had something to prove.

If Oladipo can carry that form into their series with Cleveland, the outsiders have a chance, but I'd always expect LeBron to make the difference when it matters. They are [5.3] to beat the Cavs.

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