May 21, 2021

2021 NBA Playoffs: 3 First-Round Series Props to Bet

The NBA playoffs are a joyous time on the sports calendar. The drama that stems from each series can last years as rivalries develop and legacies are solidified. Every year we're treated to another set of memorable moments. 

It's also a great time for us to win money from sportsbooks. NBA playoff series props are one of the most profitable in any sport. We rarely see the less talented team pull an upset over high seeds, but this is a unique year. 

The COVID-19-impacted schedule led to a slew of injuries and strange standings. There's no disrespect meant to the overachieving Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns or Atlanta Hawks, but no one thought any of those three teams would end up where they did. Now it's time for each to prove themselves where it matters.

We've studied each series to find analytical advantages and found three series with solid lines to bet on. Let's break it down.

Odds via DraftKings Sportsbook as of May 21

Atlanta Hawks vs. New York Knicks

The most fun first-round matchup features the two most surprising Eastern Conference teams. The Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks shocked the world by finishing with the fourth- and fifth-best records in the conference, respectively. Other series bring intrigue but this will be a can't-miss set of games for anyone wanting a fresh breath of action.

The emergence of both Trae Young and Julius Randle in 2021 has been a tremendous treat. The energy around this series stems from their development and how these franchises have rapidly rebuilt their image. Though neither has a significant chance at winning beyond the first round, it's easy to call this season a success and have hopes for building in the future.

Oddly, both teams ended with the same point differential on the season. But the comparisons stop there. The Knicks were 3.1 percent better on three-pointers and at producing steals. 

The Hawks, a dangerous offensive team in their own right, are better relative to rebounding and limiting turnovers. They generate more volume as a shooting team with more possessions compared to the Knicks and this overcomes some of the efficiency discrepancy.

I'm going with the Knicks in this series. The Hawks are so reliant on Young, and I think the Knicks can effectively bully the Hawks with their bigger forwards and slower pace. Plus we're getting positive value with the underdog pick.

Pick: Knicks, +100 

Portland Trail Blazers vs. Denver Nuggets

Denver would likely be the favorite to win the Western Conference and possibly the NBA Finals if not for Jamal Murray's season-ending injury. The Nuggets are still a talented team with great length and scoring potency, though. They're a major threat to advance to the conference finals.

The efficiency numbers are almost all green for the Nuggets. Michael Porter Jr.'s ascension to a star wing, coupled with Aaron Gordon's arrival and Nikola Jokic's MVP campaign is more than enough firepower to remain dangerous.

And yet the Trail Blazers, who have struggled dearly for stretches thanks to injuries and mediocre play, are almost even for the series. Believing in Damian Lilliard isn't foolish at all but these two teams aren't equal. The Trail Blazers will rely on the three ball and try to force an unusually high number of turnovers to win.

The path for the Nuggets to emerge is much simpler. Continuing to execute as they have throughout the season even without Murray will be enough to wrap this series up in six games. 

Pick: Nuggets, -115 

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Phoenix Suns

The Suns are really good no matter how they're viewed. Statistically, they're an elite team capable of making a deep playoff push. But on paper, there's reason to question whether they can survive LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers

Chris Paul's postseason demons are exaggerated and he should find success against the Lakers. However, the pressure on him is unusually high for a point guard. The Suns need Devin Booker to ascend even though he's in line to face a couple of high-end defenders. 

Booker's efficiency numbers dipped despite the Suns' growth as a team. This unusual outcome is due to the depth pieces picking up their games significantly, and the sum was greater than the parts. The postseason historically doesn't favor such teams. 

Mikal Bridges will need an excellent all-around series as a shooter and defender. Cameron Johnson will need to continue his efficiency. Jae Crowder will be in the spotlight constantly as well.

We've seen many similar young teams cave under LeBron's immense presence. I want to believe in the Suns, but I'll take the seventh-seeded Lakers to win the series and cash in on a reasonable line. 

Pick: Lakers, -180 

Photo: Getty Images