Unless you live under a rock, you’re aware that single-game sports wagering became legal in Ontario earlier this month.
Ever since, advertisements have been everywhere for various betting sites and odds and trends gave been seamlessly built into television broadcasts. Deals have been signed trumpeting places as the “official sports gaming partner of” the Jays/Leafs/Raptors, etc. The creep has been frustrating for some who just want to watch the games. Which is understandable. Many just don’t have interest in gambling and enjoys sports for the thrills and exploits of the players alone.
Adjustments are going to be necessary, because the horses are out of the barn and aren’t going back.
Even though it’s been almost 30 years, it feels like just yesterday that all of this would have seemed impossible. One of the key stipulations the NBA made in granting teams to Toronto and Vancouver in the mid-1990s was that betting on the NBA had to be removed from provincial lotteries (ProLine and Sports Action), with the league giving money to provincial charities in return.
Millions were wagered on the grey market since that decision and it wasn’t until 2016 that NBA wagering quietly returned to ProLine. Just over half a decade later, here we are. Whether you’re a long-time wagerer or a new convert, here are some ideas on the upcoming Raptors-Sixers first-round playoff series based on my years of covering the Raptors and the NBA.
A few general points:
THE PRESSURE FACTOR: Even though they’ve both led an NBA champion and won coach of the year, and despite Doc Rivers recently being named one of the 15 best coaches ever, you’d have a hard time finding anyone that thinks Sixers bench boss Rivers is a superior head coach than Nick Nurse. Yes, Rivers presided over special Boston Celtics teams and injuries might be the only reason he only won once there, but his Clippers teams were perennial contenders who never got it done. It’s happened elsewhere too, with Rivers teams blowing more Game 7s (often in spectacular fashion) than just about anyone else. That has to weigh on him, at least a bit.
And though James Harden says there’s no pressure on him, how could there not be? His playoff resume is one of the most damning of any MVP-level player ever. Failure after failure. One mediocre to bad series after another. He’s forced his way out of two teams in recent years and got his wish to team up with Joel Embiid. If Harden falters again, the criticism will be relentless. If he gets off to a poor start how will the notoriously tough Philly fans react? And as great as Embiid has played, he’s aware the Raptors have handled him well in the past and is sensitive to the fact that his teams have never made it past the second round (including a seven-game upset against Atlanta last year and a sweep in Round 1 vs. Boston a year earlier).
The Raptors, on the other hand, are playing with house money. They weren’t supposed to be here and even though they’ve emerged as a bit of a lovable underdog, they still aren’t the favourites. They should be able to play loose.
HOW IMPORTANT IS HOMECOURT?
Between the 2014-15 and 2019-20 seasons, only two teams won more home games in the regular season than the Raptors. Toronto’s been a fortress, with some of the loudest fans in the NBA, many of whom have been waiting years to cheer on their side live in the playoffs again.
The franchise has won over 60% (32-21, .604) of the time at home in the post-season (not including the bubble in Orlando). So, an easy choice for games 3 and 4, right? Not so fast. The Raptors went 24-17 at SBA this season (tied with Philly for seventh in the conference), but laid a number of eggs there and often looked like a much better group on the road. How much do recent results matter? Toronto went 8-1 down the stretch in Canada, which distorts that 24-17 record quite a bit, right? And as mentioned, Philadelphia is a tough place to play for opponents, but Sixers fans might turn on Harden if he stinks it up to start this series, which might rattle him.
If you’re wondering, the teams split the first four games in the classic 2018-19 series, then the home team won the final three games and that’s exactly how the 2000-01 epic between the two franchises played out as well. Could it happen that way again?
GAME 1 HORRORS:
It’s understating things to say Toronto has had a tough time with series openers (5-16) but is 4-4 since 2-17-18, so a Sixers play to start isn’t as obvious as it might once have been when this franchise seemed cursed in its first games. The Raptors lost the first game of Round 1 nine straight times before finally breaking through in 2017-18 against Washington (and again in the bubble against Brooklyn after shockingly losing Game 1 against Orlando in the championship season).
Per Covers, Toronto is 5-14 against the spread all-time in Game 1s (including the bubble). But this is a new group that isn’t saddled with the baggage of previous opening failures.
TAKE THE UNDER?
Embiid led the NBA in scoring, but there were 10 teams more efficient than Philadelphia on offence in the regular season. Toronto was smack in the middle at 15 (but just 19th after the all-star break, while Philadelphia rose to 8th). Neither team ranks in the top half of the league in three-point makes per game and Toronto was 20th in accuracy, but the Sixers ranked seventh, which means they should probably fire up more threes. The Raptors don’t get many points at the free throw line either, so offence can be a struggle. And while the Sixers get tons of calls (only two teams shot more free throws a night), as we’ve seen with DeMar DeRozan, Harden, Lou Williams and others over the years, sometimes the referees use the whistle differently in the playoffs.
There’s also a lack of depth in Philadelphia and some streaky shooters on the roster (Danny Green, Shake Milton, Tobias Harris) and one player who can’t shoot at all (Matisse Thybulle). Speaking of Thybulle, the team’s best defender (with apologies to Embiid), he won’t be available for the games in Toronto, so expect the Raptors to score more in those games than in Philadelphia.
Look for points per game to drop as the series moves on, with Embiid and Harden likely wearing down the longer it goes.
We’d also advise not to bet big on massive Embiid games. Nurse tends to send his players at him, forcing others to step up for the Sixers to win. Harden is a major wild card here as they also used to swarm him when he was still an MVP force in Houston.
Pascal Siakam wiped the floor with the Sixers all year and is on an incredible roll. In the non-Thybulle games, Siakam’s going to be a huge problem for the visitors.
Another prediction: Tyrese Maxey is going to be the breakout player of this series. And though other Raptors youngsters have stumbled in their first taste of the second season (Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Chris Bosh, DeRozan all spring to mind), we don’t expect Scottie Barnes to falter in the same way.
THE PICK: Raptors in seven, but Toronto’s going to have to hit three-pointers at a decent enough clip for this to happen. Sixers to take Game 1.
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