May 18, 2021

Best Bets: First Four Games of 2021 NBA Play-In Tournament

Despite LeBron James' objections, the 2021 NBA Play-In Tournament is finally here. 

If these four play-in games — that almost feel like a mini March Madness tournament— don't get you excited, then maybe throwing some of those hard-earned greenbacks and potentially winning big money will pique your interest. 

With four island games, that gives us four opportunities to secure the bag and whet our appetite for playoff basketball. 

Here are our best bets for the first four games of what will surely be an annual tradition. 

Odds via FanDuel Sportsbook

Charlotte Hornets (+106) at Indiana Pacers

The fact that the Pacers are favored by only 1.5 points at home means oddsmakers believe these two teams are pretty even.

They’re also both dealing with injuries to vital players.

For the Hornets, they’ll be without Gordon Hayward, who has arguably been their best all-around player this season — averaging about 20 points, six rebounds and four assists. Charlotte has an ugly 8-16 record since Hayward was injured in early April.

While the Hornets will miss Hayward, the Pacers have much worse injury issues. The Pacers will likely trot out a skeleton lineup tonight. 

If Domantas Sabonis is out, then the Pacers are likely toast barring a T.J. McConnell or Oshae Brissett offensive explosion. 

The Hornets still have their three-headed guard rotation of Terry Rozier, LaMelo Ball and Devonte’ Graham, three guys who can all light it up from deep, make plays for others and attack defenses off the bounce while roasting opponents to the tune of 15.6 points per 100 possessions. Add in versatile, athletic forwards in Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington, and the Hornets are a quality value at +106 on the money line. 

Washington Wizards (+2.5) at Boston Celtics

The Wizards have been plowing through teams since the trade deadline, sporting a 17-6 record over their last 23 games. A huge part of Washington's rise has been thanks to Russell Westbrook transforming his standard triple-doubles into monster triple-doubles along with the addition of bruising big man Daniel Gafford to help on defense.

And, of course, there's fellow backcourt star Bradley Beal, who isn't afraid to let his Twitter fingers fly. While he's dealing with a balky hamstring, the former Florida star didn't show any signs of slowing down Sunday — dropping 25 points in a win over the Hornets. 

The Wizards are also a top-10 team in turnovers, while the Celtics are in the bottom 10 when it comes to taking care of the ball. For the Wizards, a recipe of attacking the offensive glass, rarely coughing up the ball and relying on two otherworldly talents to make great plays is a solid recipe for success, especially against this haphazard Celtics squad.

The Celtics will be shorthanded against the Wiz after losing Jaylen Brown for the season with a wrist injury. Brown was Boston’s second-best player this season after Jayson Tatum, and the Celtics will miss his scoring and defense gravely.

As unfortunate as Brown’s injury is there is still a clear blueprint for success for the Celtics and that starts with Tatum. By all statistical measures, Tatum has had an excellent season, but he needs to focus on making his teammates.

Boston does have a solid homecourt advantage, as they’ve gone 21-15 this season at the TD Garden. But keep this in mind: Over the past 15 games, when Westbrook and Beal share the court, the Wizards have outscored opponents by almost 10 points per 100 possessions.

Considering those guys rarely come off the court, especially in such an important game, you should feel good about betting on the underdog Wizards.

San Antonio Spurs vs Memphis Grizzlies (-4)

Good luck scoring on the Grizzlies

Memphis, which ranks seventh in defensive rating, now boasts the league’s best defense with their newly minted starting lineup that features both Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jonas Valanciunas in the frontcourt. And even though Memphis has struggled at times to put the ball in the basket, they luckily play a middle-of-the-pack Spurs defense.

San Antonio also ranks 28th in three-pointers made per game, which is a bad sign against a Grizzlies team that has strong interior defense with two seven-footers prowling the paint.

Perhaps the biggest reason the Spurs are in trouble is the absence of do-it-all guard Derrick White, who is sidelined with an ankle injury. Without him, the Spurs will have to lean hard on their trio of DeMar DeRozan, Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl, which has been one of the Spurs’ better lineups over the course of the season. They outscored opponents by two points per 100 possessions, but that’s better than most of their other lineups. 

For the Spurs to have a chance at pulling off the upset, they’ll need one of Lonnie Walker IV or Keldon Johnson to have a phenomenal game. And if Murray and Poeltl can keep Morant and Valanciunas in check, that would make this game much more interesting. When those two have shared the floor, the Spurs have a 107.5 defensive rating on the year, which would be tied for third-best in the league.

However, the Grizzlies have a much better chance simply because they’ve largely been the superior team all season. Even if the Spurs are able to contain Morant and Valanciunas, they’ll still have their hands full with Dillon Brooks, who has quietly transformed into a mini star thanks to his consistent defensive and scoring outputs.

A -4 point spread leaves some room for error even if the Grizzlies win, but Memphis is 42-30 against the spread this season, which is the third-best mark in the league.

Golden State Warriors vs Los Angeles Lakers (-5.5)

And now for the most anticipated play-in game ever!

The Warriors-Lakers tilt features arguably the two most popular stars in the NBA today in LeBron James and Stephen Curry

And even though Curry has been cooking all season — James clearly agrees — the Lakers are heavy favorites at -5.5. 

That makes sense with James and Anthony Davis rounding into form at the exact right time, and they’ve outscored opponents by over 11 points per 100 possessions together, one of the fattest marks in the league among two-man combos. 

A huge feather in Los Angeles’ cap is they’ve been one of the best defenses against Curry all season, “holding” the baby-faced assassin to 23 points per game on 42% shooting and 34% from deep and an overall -39 point differential across three separate matchups. 

But don't count out the Warriors just yet. 

Since their last matchup, Golden State has ascended from a middle-of-the-pack squad to a terrorizing, locked in unit. In May, the Dubs have the league’s top net rating, outscoring opponents by an eye-popping 13 points per 100 possessions. Their defense is now the league’s fifth-best and has been the top dog for over a month now.

There’s no doubt the Warriors are a different team compared to the unit that got blasted by the Lakers earlier this season, but it’s important to note the Lakers were without Davis, and they still have a good recipe for keeping Curry in check. 

After a rough patch where it seemed like the whole team was falling apart faster than a game of Jenga, the Lakers are all of a sudden nearly completely healthy for once. They’re chock full of wise veterans who don’t make mistakes very often, and it will be interesting to see how well Andre Drummond can play against the underrated Kevon Looney.

While all eyes will be on James’ ankle, he’s been just fine since returning. The Lakers are so good when healthy that half of the Western Conference spent the last week scrambling in order to avoid them in the first round.

Hopefully, this game produces lots of fireworks, but we think the Lakers will cover this spread that could continue to grow. 

Photo: Getty Images