With the NBA Finals getting underway Thursday night, you can’t help thinking about how far the Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics have come.
Those taking the rear-view mirror assessment of Boston could say Boston surpassing the Philadelphia 76ers is rooted in fundamentals.
The Celtics surge had a foreshadowing back in February.
On Feb. 15, the Celtics dumped the Sixers 135-87 in Philadelphia.
That’s when the Celtics matched the Sixers’ win total of 34. And although some fans dismissed the blowout because James Harden had not yet played for the Sixers, it was an omen.
Something was up with the Celtics, who would surge from a 25-25 mark to 51-31. That’s a 26-6 finish.
And if you talk with Johnny Avello, the director of race and sportsbook operations for DraftKings, he’ll tell you “anybody who saw this turn coming got great numbers.”
“You look at the Celtics and we were still offering some pretty great odds, probably +3500 or +4000 even into February,” Avello said during his weekly chat with PlayNJ. “After that game against the Sixers and then as they continued to win, we started taking more money and lowering the price.”
Heading into Game 1 of the NBA Finals versus the Golden State Warriors, the number is +130. The Golden State Warriors odds are -150.
Avello weighs in on how Eastern Conference was up for grabs
Some NJ sports bettors jumped on the Celtics at +500 to win the Eastern Conference before the team was even in first place.
It was a leap of faith because the team had only begun its run, but a few savvy bettors nonetheless timed it perfectly.
The Celtics are the team on a mission.
In the end, they took the hard road, eliminating the Brooklyn Nets, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks and then the Miami Heat to reach the finals.
They have demonstrated extraordinary mettle.
Boston has won seven road games. It has captured two Game 7s. The Celtics win shootouts and tight defensive nail-biters.
The team that routed the Sixers has blossomed.
There were reasons the Boston price stayed high for so long. One was the expectation of a long postseason for the Sixers. Philadelphia traded for James Harden in February. He began like a house afire but ultimately faded.
The Sixers did not have the same regular-season value as the Celtics, but the 76ers odds had been held artificially high because of heavy money on the Nets. The Nets’ flop, being swept by the Celtics in the opening round, underscored the wisdom of having bet the Sixers and Celtics.
“The Sixers are a team we normally take high action on every year,” Avello noted. “There are always high expectation with them. Not only do they have Joel Embiid, a great player, but after they got James Harden, we wrote more money on them.
“I don’t think the Sixers were ever higher than the low teens, maybe a little higher, during the regular season. But you see what a logjam they had in the East, with the Sixers, Bucks and Celtics all having the same regular-season record.
“That was a strong group of teams. The entire Eastern Conference was up for grabs.”
And Boston grabbed it with a little more grit, a little more tenacity and with a pattern in-game bettors appreciated – big runs notched and big runs allowed.
NBA Playoff roads connecting back to Philadelphia
The Miami Heat, led by former 76er Jimmy Butler, ended the Sixers’ season at the Wells Fargo Center by toppling them in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Heat then bowed to the Boston Celtics in seven games to set up the NBA Finals matchup.
And then there’s the matter of Al Horford.
He would be the former Sixer big man who wasn’t a fit here.
However, his performance was more suited to helping Boston reach the finals. It will be Horford’s first finals appearance ever.
Horford was a bust here and his four-year, $109 million contract signed in 2019 was bemoaned.
He’s the same player now, stylistically, but Horford simply fits better in Boston.
He was considered the odd man out in Philadelphia with Joel Embiid, the NBA MVP runner-up, and Ben Simmons on the floor.
Horford was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2020 and eventually returned to Boston.
His departure from Philly was considered good riddance.
That’s ironic now.
Yes, Horford’s exit did help Embiid, who blossomed with more inside space.
However, it’s the Celtics who leaned on Horford in the paint to win the East.
With or without the odds, the Sixers are still at least one move and one player away from reaching Boston’s level.
DraftKings Sportsbook + NBA betting handle
Looking at the 2021-22 NBA season as a whole, Avello said DraftKings Sportsbook enjoyed a “banner year” regarding NBA handle.
He noted in-game wagering has a lot to do with that.
“Bettors love a game in which they don’t mind catching a team that could be down 13-14 points and you can get them at least to cover at a good price.
“A team goes on a big run and now the other team is favorable to look at,” Avello said.
“The Celtics are going to be popular in the New York and Philadelphia area with the bettors being familiar with that team. In other areas of the country, Golden State could be the play.”
Should the Celtics upend the favored Warriors, it will underscore how special their late-season run, which came through Philadelphia, really was.