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Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks dunks during the first half of the NBA All-Star basketball game Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, in Chicago.

Two and a half months after the conclusion of the 2019-20 season in a bubble environment at Walt Disney World, the NBA returns December 22 with its 2020-21 campaign at teams’ regular locations.

If the resumption of play after an abnormally short break snuck up on you, you’re not alone; it also snuck up on the players, many of whom wanted to wait until late January to begin the next season. But league executives warned such a delay could result in a $1 billion revenue loss, according to ESPN, so the two sides negotiated the December start with a shortened 72-game—as opposed to the normal 82-game—season.

Among the key benefits of playing now: safeguarding the coveted annual slate of five Christmas Day games, always among the NBA’s highest-rated telecasts.

Local sportsbooks were quick to post point spreads for opening-night and Christmas Day games along with their usual future offerings, so it’s time to snap back into action and bet all the NBA has to offer. Here are seven plays to make at the onset of the season.

Milwaukee Bucks to win the NBA Championship at +745 (Circa Sports)

With an average margin of victory of more than 9 points per game, the Bucks have been historically dominant over the past two seasons. They’ve just dissipated in the playoffs.

Milwaukee’s back-to-back postseason collapses likely had as much to do with random ill-timed funks than systemic issues, but the team has addressed them adequately nonetheless. The Bucks sacrificed depth in the offseason to add another top-end talent by trading for Jrue Holiday, a move that could cut into their regular-season success slightly but serve the club better come playoff time.

Holiday finally provides two-time defending NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo with a first-rate point guard to play alongside. Most importantly, it’s virtually unprecedented to get a team that has been this efficient at this high a price.

Utah Jazz to win the Northwest Division at +250 (Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook)

Utah was a rimmed-out Mike Conley buzzer-beater from beating the Denver Nuggets in an opening-round NBA playoff series the Jazz once led 3-1. And now Utah is a sizable underdog to compete with the same Denver team less than four months later? That doesn’t compute, especially because the Jazz might have gotten better in the offseason, while the Nuggets arguably got worse.

Utah should be buoyed by the return of injured Bojan Bogdanovic and free agent Derrick Favors. Denver lost Jerami Grant to Detroit. Just like the playoff showdown, this is a coin-flip divisional race.

Philadelphia 76ers to win the Atlantic Division at +300 (William Hill)

Philadelphia drastically improved its staff by hiring Daryl Morey as president of basketball operations and Doc Rivers as coach, and the duo’s influence should translate into a better on-court product.

Rivers is an upgrade from the fired Brett Brown, but the 76ers will really reap benefits from having Morey aboard. The former Houston Rockets personnel head has already performed roster gymnastics to bring in a supporting cast that better complements star tandem Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, signing sharpshooters Danny Green and Seth Curry.

And Morey likely won’t stop there. Known as one of the most aggressive maneuverers in all of sports on the trade market, Morey will do everything he can to keep adding pieces.

Opening Night: Los Angeles Clippers +3 at Los Angeles Lakers (William Hill)

The Clippers were set to be slight favorites over the Lakers in the Western Conference finals before blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets in the semifinals.

Now they’ve had an extra month to rest, while the Lakers battled their way to winning the NBA Championship. Don’t underestimate the fatigue that comes from having to win two more series at the highest level, and don’t forget that LeBron James was the most visible player speaking out against a quick start to another season.

The Lakers deserve to be the Western Conference
favorites as they defend their title, but look for them to start the season slow and ramp up later in the year.

Christmas Day: Milwaukee Bucks -8 vs. Golden State Warriors (William Hill)

There’s too much optimism regarding the Warriors’ ability to regain the form that saw them make five straight NBA Finals from 2015 to 2019. The roster is no longer there.

Steph Curry is still one of the best players in the league, but with Klay Thompson out for another season with an Achilles injury, and Draymond Green showing signs of regression, Curry has been left without top-notch sidekicks.

It will become apparent early in the season that the Warriors are a bubble playoff team—at best—and their point spreads will adjust accordingly. Start betting against them before that happens.

Boston Celtics under 45.5 wins (William Hill)

The Hornets’ signing of Gordon Hayward to a four-year, $120 million deal in free agency has been the butt of many jokes, but there’s nothing funny about where it left the Celtics—getting no compensation for one of their cornerstone players.

Hayward was often injured during his three-year stint in Boston, but he was a difference-maker when he was on the floor, especially last season. Depth has been one of Boston’s biggest weapons, and with Hayward departed and Kemba Walker out to start the season with a knee injury, it suddenly has none.

The Celtics would need to win at roughly the same pace they did last season to beat this number, and that seems far too optimistic.

Memphis Grizzlies over 31.5 wins (SuperBook)

The lasting image of the Grizzlies is them blowing the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs—one they had held onto for months—with a play-in loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. That’s unfair, and has tempered expectations for a young team on the rise.

Reigning Rookie of the Year Ja Morant is a budding superstar, and the point guard is surrounded with perfect complementary pieces, led by versatile big man Jaren Jackson. The 21-year-old Jackson missed the end of last season with a knee injury, but he’s expected back within the first month this season.

Memphis seems more likely to improve than decline, even though this line suggests otherwise.

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.

Article written by #LasVegasSun