It’s been a “last man standing” kind of NBA postseason.
That doesn’t mean the winner gets an asterisk, and it’s not meant to denigrate the Milwaukee Bucks or the Phoenix Suns. It’s just a reality of what has transpired. The 2021 NBA champion will be the team that survived and thrived, in that order of importance.
The Bucks have a chance to clinch the title in Tuesday night’s Game 6, having rallied from a 2-0 deficit to take a 3-2 lead on the strength of a defense-to-offense play by Jrue Holiday and Giannis Antetokounmpo that fans will be putting on NBA finals best-of lists for years to come. They’re one win away from rewarding backers who put money behind the possibility of a Milwaukee championship.
Payouts vary depending on when you placed the wager and which of the growing number of regulated U.S. sportsbooks you used, but as examples, the Bucks were +550 to win it all at FanDuel Sportsbook before the season began and +800 at DraftKings Sportsbook at the start of the playoffs.
Any of those tickets will bring a satisfying feeling to those cashing them.
Especially when you consider the Bucks were a Kevin Durant toenail away from going home a month ago, another disappointing playoff flameout in the rearview.
Undoubtedly, there is skill involved in sports betting. If you put in the work and the research, if you line shop and develop a real understanding of value, you give yourself a better chance of coming out ahead in the long run.
But when looking at small sample sizes — such as a singular bet on a team to win the NBA title — you need breaks to go your way. And, with the caveat that anything can happen in Game 6 or in a potential Game 7 on Thursday, let’s just say that if the Bucks win, those holding Milwaukee bet slips shouldn’t pat themselves on the back too excessively or start their own tout services on the strength of this pick.
Bend but don’t break (or tear or dislocate)
It’s not just the Durant three-pointer that was actually a two-pointer that sent that Bucks-Nets game to overtime instead of propelling Brooklyn to the Eastern Conference finals.
In the most injury-beset postseason anyone can remember, which has made these NBA playoffs as unpredictable as the NHL playoffs typically are, the Bucks have been less unlucky than most.
There were the big, bad favorites in each conference all season — the Nets and the L.A. Lakers — who lost superstars at inopportune times. Durant’s season ended with James Harden beside him at half strength and Kyrie Irving in street clothes. The Suns might not have gotten out of Round 1 if Anthony Davis had been able to stay healthy.
The list of all-star caliber players who went down either late in the season or during the playoffs is staggering. In addition to Davis, Harden, and Irving, you had Jamal Murray, Jaylen Brown, Mike Conley, Kawhi Leonard, and, temporarily, Joel Embiid, Chris Paul, Trae Young, and Giannis.
That last name tells you the Bucks were not immune. But Antetokounmpo’s hyperextended knee only caused him to miss two games, and, to his credit, he has come back at something resembling full strength.
The only other injury of note for Milwaukee was losing guard Donte DiVincenzo to a torn ankle ligament in the team’s third playoff game. It might have become a crippling blow to the team, but Pat Connaughton’s play of late has helped make it an afterthought.
In a postseason overloaded with major injuries, two lesser hits to the Suns might have swung these finals in Milwaukee’s favor. One is the various not quite confirmed ailments limiting Paul’s effectiveness. The other is the torn ACL suffered by Dario Saric during Game 1 of the finals. Saric is only a bench player, but the Phoenix frontcourt isn’t the same without him available for backup center and power forward minutes — especially when DeAndre Ayton gets into a hint of foul trouble.
Now here we are, with role players you never would have expected to matter proving crucial down the stretch of this postseason:
The Bucks are outscoring the Suns by 12.4 points per-100 possessions in Bobby Portis’s minutes, making that 1) the best Net Rating for any player in this series, and 2) something I can’t believe I just typed.
— Andy Means (@ameansy) July 20, 2021
Suns in 4? No. Suns getting 5? Maybe.
Entering Game 6, with the Bucks up 3-2 and momentum, injury issues, and home court all pointing their way, Caesars sportsbook has them at -400 to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. FanDuel pegs them as a -380 choice. Both books offer +320 for those looking to parlay together two Suns victories.
Finals MVP is just about a done deal, should the Bucks close it out. Antetokounmpo is a -435 choice at most books (even longer than the odds on Milwaukee to win!), though BetMGM has him at a discounted -357. Consensus prices on Devin Booker and Paul are +600 and +700, respectively, and nobody else is shorter than 20/1.
As for Game 6, as of late morning Tuesday, most online sportsbooks — BetMGM, Unibet, BetRivers, Barstool, Caesars, and others — had Milwaukee at -200 on the moneyline. The DraftKings price sat at -195, while FanDuel posted -194.
Coming back the other way, a Phoenix win was +160 at most books but an industry-best +175 at Caesars.
The spread varied between 4½ and 5 points from book to book, with the home Bucks favored. The points total over/under was either 222 or 222½, depending on the operator.
If you played this NBA postseason out 10 times, you’d probably get 10 different finals matchups. But the history books don’t register hypotheticals. In the real world, the Suns are two wins away and the Bucks are just one win away. May the sharpest wagers win. Or the luckiest. Or both.
Photo: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today Sports