NBA betting, odds: Three best bets for Game 1 of the NBA Finals

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Get ready for an epic NBA Finals showdown. The top-seeded Denver Nuggets will face the eighth-seeded Miami Heat on Thursday night.

The Nuggets, in their first NBA Finals, have proven they’re a force to be reckoned with, dismantling the Timberwolves in five games, the Suns in six games and sweeping the Lakers in the Western Conference finals.

Meanwhile, the Heat, making their seventh Finals appearance, continue to shock the world as underdogs. They took down the Bucks in five games, the Knicks in six and fended off the Boston Celtics in dramatic fashion in seven games. A battle of this magnitude won’t disappoint, so let’s get into my Game 1 betting card.

Nuggets -8.5 (-115)

Denver comes into Thursday with a substantial rest advantage over the Miami Heat. The Nuggets swept the Lakers on May 22, so they’ve been off for nine days compared to only two days’ rest for the Miami Heat. Denver finished 14-7-1 against the spread (ATS) with a rest advantage in the regular season, the best mark in the NBA.

Momentum-wise, it doesn’t help that Miami was up 3-0 on Boston, only to lose three straight and finally win on the road in Game 7. I’m far more concerned about the Heat’s mileage impacting their performance in Game 1 than the Nuggets’ long layoff. History might serve Miami truthers well, as Erik Spoelstra is 14-5 as an underdog of six points or more in the postseason. However, the Nuggets’ have been too dominant in the playoffs to be taken lightly — especially at home. They are 8-0 at home (5-3 ATS) in the postseason with an average margin of victory of 12 points.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) as players take part in practice for Game 1 of the NBA basketball finals against the Miami Heat Wednesday, May 31, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić (15) and his teammates take part in practice Wednesday for Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Denver is first in offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions), eighth in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) and first in net rating (point differential per 100 possessions). Plus, the Nuggets’ defense has done a phenomenal job limiting opponents from 3-point range in the playoffs.

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Per NBA Advanced Stats, opponents have only taken 34.1% of their shots from three against Denver, the second-lowest rate in the playoffs. That could be problematic for Miami because their 3-point efficiency has been critical to their success throughout the postseason. The Heat are shooting a playoff-best 39% from distance, but if they can’t fire away from deep like in previous rounds, how will they keep up with Denver?

The other factor where Miami has found success is forcing turnovers — another area that the Nuggets have covered. They boast the lowest turnover ratio per game (11.7%) and have the highest assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.27 in the postseason.

The Heat continue to get outlier-like performances from Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent and Duncan Robinson. While they’ve been outstanding, Denver’s length poses a different challenge on the perimeter than they’ve faced thus far. Bam Adebayo and Kevin Love will have their hands full, too, as the Nuggets are averaging 51.5 points in the paint, the best in the postseason.

The Nuggets swept the season series 2-0 (and covered in each game), but this is a different Nuggets team. Denver has the rest advantage that can also exploit Miami’s undersized frontcourt. Plus, the Nuggets have been arguably the best team on both ends of the floor coming into the Finals.

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And I have yet to mention having to neutralize Nikola Jokić, the most versatile offensive weapon in the league.

The Lakers attempted the “man-spy” on Jokic with Anthony Davis to no avail. The Heat play more zone than anyone in the playoffs, and while it’s been effective up until this point, the Nuggets happen to be “pretty, pretty good” against zone (Larry David voice).

Miami has been great at making adjustments in the postseason, but Game 1 will be a steep learning curve. Therefore, I’m laying the points with the Nuggets and would play this up to -9.

Jimmy Butler under 27.5 points (-115)

Butler has done a lot of heavy lifting to get the Heat to the Finals, but one thing that’s been trending down is his scoring. He’s been one of the most dominant players throughout the postseason, averaging 28.5 points per game. He went nuclear versus the Milwaukee Bucks in the opening round, but since the conference semifinals versus the Knicks, he’s averaged 24.7 points per game and has gone under 27.5 in 8 of his last 12 postseason contests (67%). He’s shooting 42.3% from the field over that span, and I couldn’t help but notice he appeared to aggravate an ankle injury in the third quarter of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals a couple of days ago.

The Miami Heat’s offense runs through Butler. He has the highest usage rate on the team by a wide margin, and Denver is well aware of this. Denver will likely use multiple players to match up with Butler, plus send sporadic double teams to disrupt his rhythm. He’s been a willing passer all postseason long, averaging nearly nine potential assists across each round of the playoffs. The volume will undoubtedly be there, but I’m fading Butler’s points prop in Game 1. He’s been under 27.5 points in six of his last seven games versus Denver dating back to 2019, and Denver will open up the series determined to force the ball out of Butler’s hands.

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Jamal Murray over 10.5 rebounds + assists (-120)

The Heat will try their best to stop Jokic, but they also need to pay plenty of attention to Jamal Murray. He’s Denver’s second-leading scorer at 27.7 points per game but is also registering 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game in the postseason.

In looking back at Murray’s performance history versus the Heat, he’s failed to exceed 10.5 rebounds + assists in all nine games in his career. He’s averaging a mere 6.9 rebounds + assists when facing Miami, so it begs the question, why would I take this over?

Well, “Playoff” Murray is different. He’s second on the team in potential assists per game at 11.7 and fourth in rebound chances at 8.3 per game coming into Game 1 of the Finals. And while he’s been on fire from deep and notched at least 25 points in five straight contests, I expect the Heat to use several bodies to limit his scoring opportunities. Murray is playing the most minutes of any Nuggets player at 39.1 per game, and even if he’s not scoring at the rate we’ve seen throughout the playoffs, he’ll continue to make an impact through his hustle and facilitation.

I’m backing his recent performance, as he’s been over 10.5 rebounds + assists in 4 of his last 5 games at home (with an average of 12.4 rebounds + assists over that span) and 67% of games overall in this postseason. He’s cookin’ and will play a pivotal role in executing the pick-and-roll with Jokic while getting his teammates involved.

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