My favorite playoffs of the year tip off Saturday as the Sweet 16 of the NBA begins. Do I agree that the league should alter the playoff format to a true 1-16 bracket and simply take the best 16 teams regardless of conference? I do. The Celtics (40-42) and Nets (38-44) don't belong in the postseason over Oklahoma City (45-37). But even if you want to the true best 16, there still would be at least one team under .500 this season, so perhaps there's no perfect fix. While a No. 8 upsetting a No. 1 is not a big deal in the NHL any longer, it's extremely rare in the NBA, and I don't see it happening this season. Here's a look at Saturday's four openers.
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Wizards at Raptors (-4.5, 196.5)
It's a 12:30 start on ESPN. The Raptors are the No. 4 seed in the East, which I tend to think they are happy about instead of potentially grabbing No. 3 from Chicago on the final night of the regular season. Washington is the No. 5 and had nothing to play for on Tuesday or Wednesday and lost in Indiana in double overtime and Cleveland in overtime. So the Wizards probably would have liked to open on Sunday instead of Saturday. The only injury issue for Washington is to big man Nene, but he will play. Toronto's DeMar DeRozan is dealing with a groin injury and Amir Williams an ankle issue, but both played Wednesday. The best part of Wednesday's win over Charlotte was that point guard Kyle Lowry looked like an All-Star for the first time in weeks since a back injury began bothering him. He had 26 points, seven assists and four rebounds. The Raptors swept the season series 3-0 with Washington, but all three were before the All-Star break and the last two were both decided in the final seconds. No team has gone longer without a playoff series win since Toronto's last in 2001.
Series price: Raptors -200, Wizards +165.
Key trends: Washington is 3-7 against the spread in its past 10 in Toronto. The "over/under" has gone under in six of the past seven there.
Early lean: Take the points, go under.
Pelicans at Warriors (-11.5, 205.5)
A 3:30 start on ABC. Kudos to West No. 8 seed New Orleans as I didn't expect the Pelicans to beat the visiting Spurs on Wednesday night to get in the postseason because San Antonio had won 11 straight games and still had the No. 2 seed in the West to play for. Yet the Pelicans won 108-103, and that has to be a confidence boost. Can they beat the Warriors? Not a chance unless Steph Curry gets hurt. But it's a good learning experience for young superstar Anthony Davis, who probably will be in the playoffs now for the next decade. New Orleans has pretty much everyone available, although point guard Jrue Holiday can't play heavy minutes yet off his return from a lengthy leg injury. What more to say about overall No. 1 Golden State? It had one of the great regular seasons ever at 67-15 and tied for the second-best home record ever at 39-2. Curry will win MVP. The Warriors won three of four regular-season meetings, splitting in New Orleans, while scoring 112, 128 and 112 points in the three victories.
Series price: Warriors -6000, Pelicans +2000.
Key trends: New Orleans is 0-4 ATS in its past four at Golden State. The under is 6-2 in the past eight there.
Early lean: Pelicans sort of made their goal so I expect them to be flat here and blown out. Warriors and over.
Bucks at Bulls (-7, 193.5)
A 7 p.m. start on ESPN. This is the first-round series the No. 3 Bulls wanted. Obviously very easy travel 90 miles up the road, and it's a very young Bucks team. Although Chicago looked like it might drop to No. 4 as the Hawks were dominating their game in the Windy City on Wednesday night. However, then Coach Mike Budenholzer benched his starters and the Bulls rallied for a 91-85 win, their fourth straight. Derrick Rose played only 10 minutes due to a slightly sore knee but says he's fine. Taj Gibson left with a shoulder injury but also says he's fine. Joakim Noah missed a second straight game with a hamstring injury, but he will play Saturday, although perhaps not 100 percent. Chicago won the season series 3-1 but lost the most recent matchup on April 1, which is the only game that Michael Carter-Williams played in the series.
Series price: Bulls -750, Bucks +500.
Key trends: The home team is 4-1 ATS in the past five meetings. The under is 4-0 in the past four.
Early lean: Give the points as long as Noah plays. Stay under.
Mavericks at Rockets (-5.5, 210)
A 9:30 tip on ESPN. Houston was the biggest winner (other than New Orleans and Brooklyn) on Wednesday. The Rockets caught a huge break when the Spurs were upset in New Orleans as that opened up the No. 2 seed in the West with a Houston win, and it destroyed Utah 117-91 to close the regular season with three straight double-digit wins. James Harden came up short for the scoring title but had a triple-double against the Jazz. Harden will finish second in the MVP voting and will be first-team All-NBA. Houston lives and dies by the 3-pointer, making at least 10 in 56 games this season, an NBA record. The big question for Houston is whether point guard Patrick Beverley can return from a wrist injury for the playoffs. He originally was thought to be lost for the season. I'm not counting on his return, but he says it's a "strong possibility." Houston doesn't need him to beat Dallas. These teams have a lot in common in that Dallas always wanted Dwight Howard and tried to get Josh Smith when he came free early this season. Houston was trying to trade for Rajon Rondo before Dallas got him. Then you have the whole Chandler Parsons thing and Mavs owner Mark Cuban constantly ripping Rockets GM Daryl Morey. Houston won the season series 3-1.
Series price: Rockets -380, Mavericks +300.
Key trends: Dallas is 1-4 ATS in its past five at Houston. The over is 5-2 in the past seven there.
Early lean: Rockets and over.
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