NBA Picks: Underdog Celtics Will Cover Short Spread +2 Against Hawks

Thursday, April 28, 2016 5:35 PM GMT

Despite an ugly Game 5 loss, the Celtics should provide bettors with a solid value as slight home underdogs in Game 6.See inside for my preview & NBA pick.

Atlanta Hawks vs. Boston Celtics
Arguably the most compelling first-round series of the NBA playoffs could conclude on Thursday night, when the Atlanta Hawks have an opportunity to close out the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. The Hawks were the superior team by point differential and Simple Rating System (a measure of efficiency used by Basketball-Reference) during the regular season, and Avery Bradley’s injury has helped widen the gap between the two teams. Whereas the Celtics have needed two late fourth-quarter comebacks to hold serve at home, the Hawks have largely controlled each game at Phillips Arena, winning the latter two contests by comfortable double-digit margins.

Indeed, with Atlanta having outscored Boston by 5.1 points per 100 possessions over the course of this series, only the Cleveland-Detroit series has been more lopsided among Eastern Conference matchups. Given how the Cavs swept the Pistons, it is statistically a mild surprise that Boston is even in position to extend this series to the full seven games. Bookmaker have picked up on this trend, initially opening the Hawks as 1.5-point road favorites. Since the opening, bettors have actually pushed that line up to plus-2 at places like 5Dimes and Pinnacle.

However, when delving deeper into longer trends, imagining a Celtics upset to prolong the series becomes far from implausible. During the regular season, Boston was 22-17-2 against the spread at home, while the Hawks were a middling 20-20-1 ATS on the road. Even looking past the raw ATS records, it is not difficult to understand why the Hawks’ playing style is vulnerable to slumps on the road. Atlanta is a jumper-heavy team; the Hawks scored 29.0 percent of their points from three-pointers during the regular season (sixth in the NBA), and that percentage is spiked up to 30.7 percent during the playoffs.

As you might expect, a team relying heavily on the jump shot tends to slump away from its home arena. The Hawks shot a dismal 26.6 percent on three-pointers in Games 3 and 4, attempting a whopping 39.5 long-range shots per game in those contests. That mark is easily the highest road average for any team in the playoffs, and apart from Paul Millsap’s post offense in Game 4, Atlanta has been futile in generating clean shots inside the arc at Boston.

Granted, picking a Celtics upset also entails placing one’s faith in the Celtics offense, which has been streaky throughout this series. Boston has largely allowed Isaiah Thomas to gobble up possessions, as his usage rate has exceeded 30 percent of three of the five games this series, and only dipped under 27 percent in Game 5 because he left early with a sprained ankle. With Thomas likely to play through the injury on Thursday, we should expect Boston to continue challenging Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroeder with plenty of ball screens. According to NBA's SportVU data, the Celtics scored 38 of their 104 points through Thomas ball screens, which were by far their most efficient form of offense, regardless of the screener.

Given the injuries to Bradley and Kelly Olynyk, the Celtics lack the floor-spacing personnel to match Atlanta’s lineups, which consist of quick-twitch guards, rangy wings and stretch bigs.  The likes of Jonas Jerebko and Marcus Smart have given Boston brief spurts of shot-making, but nothing about the Celtics’ season-long trends suggest anyone other than Thomas capable of handling a heavy load of the offense.

 

Conclusion
Nevertheless, we can expect Brad Stevens to devise a sounder game plan after Atlanta was highly effective in denying Thomas the ball in Game 5, leading to a season-low seven points for the All-Star. Perhaps Evan Turner will assume more ballhandling duties, allowing Thomas to work free on off-ball screens. While the Celtics will need one of its ancillary contributors to deliver again—or receive a long-awaited breakout from Jae Crowder—it is difficult to imagine Atlanta stifling Thomas as effectively as they did on Tuesday night.

The Hawks are still a strong favorite to win the series overall. FiveThirtyEight’s Elo projections have Atlanta as an 81 percent favorite to eventually take the series. But given Boston’s homecourt advantage and the Hawks’ shooting woes on the road, the Celtics provide a nice value on the NBA odds as underdogs for at least one more game. I'm backing this team as one of my NBA picks.

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Free NBA Pick: Boston +2
Best Line Offered: at YouWager