The Empire Slate: Put-Up Or Shut-Up Time For Nets As Durant Returns

The top-seed Miami Heat visit Barclays Center and the Rangers look for trade help
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“The Empire Slate” is a weekly look at betting angles and trends involving New York sports.

If the Nets are going to redeem themselves as the early-season Eastern Conference favorites, they might want to get started soon. In fact, Thursday night seems like a good time to start proving they’re as good as the bookmakers thought.

After going 5-16 without their best player, the Nets are expected to welcome back Kevin Durant for the home game vs. the Miami Heat. Brooklyn is +2.5 across the board, aside from FanDuel, which makes the Nets +2. While Durant told reporters after Wednesday’s shootaround that he’s ready to return from a six-week absence due to a sprained knee ligament, nobody knows how effective he’ll be or limited in game minutes.

Once among the favorites to win MVP, Durant has practically fallen off the board at 150/1 (at DraftKings and others). The Heat are where the Nets were supposed to be, atop the East standings with a 41-22 record. Losers of 11 straight not long ago, the Nets stand now as the No. 8 seed, nine games behind Miami in the conference standings.

Despite that, six of the eight sportsbooks licensed to take bets in New York have the Nets as the favorites to win the East (FanDuel is the most bullish with the Nets at +270). The exceptions are PointsBET, where the 76ers are the chalk and the Nets are +400, and BetRivers, where the Nets are tied with the Bucks at +275.

Will Durant turn the tide starting tonight?

Behind Jimmy Butler, the Heat are beginning to look more like their 2020 selves than the team that got swept out of the first round of the playoffs last year. The primary improvement comes from a better offense, which ranks eighth in the NBA after ranking 18th last season.

Butler hasn’t gotten any traction in MVP voting, where he’s 500/1 at most books, including PointsBet. But Miami’s more about offensive depth anyway, with Tyler Herro, Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson, Max Strus, and Kyle Lowry each averaging double-digit points per game. Lowry is out for Thursday’s game for personal reasons.

As you would expect of the best team in the conference so far, Miami isn’t uni-dimensional. The Heat rank sixth in defensive rating while holding opponents to an impressive 44% shooting from the floor.

The other factor working against the Nets: They’re still depleted. While Durant is back, Kyrie Irving remains unable, for the moment, to play in home games due to vaccination requirements in New York. Ben Simmons hasn’t yet hit the court since he was traded in the deal that sent James Harden to Philly, and the team has yet to give a timetable for his return.

Seems like a lot to ask of Durant Thursday night, and with each day that goes by, more and more people must be wondering why the Nets remain favored so many places.

The calm before March Madness

One big advantage New York has over New Jersey (and, no, this isn’t some kind of joke) is that bettors in the Empire State can wager on collegiate athletic events taking place in the state that involve out-of-state participants. They can’t bet on schools based in New York, but if a non-New York team plays here, it’s game on.

That raises the possibility of attending some great upcoming basketball games while having action on the line. The ACC Tournament is at Barclays Center March 9-12 and the Big East Tournament is at Madison Square Garden March 8-12.

Frankly, if you’re not going to be able to bet on the local teams, this is a pretty good year to have to sit out. Seton Hall is the only team based in the state squarely in the field of 64 for the NCAA Tournament, per Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket at ESPN. Lunardi has the Pirates as a No. 8 seed playing Wyoming in the first round. He also projects Colgate to make it, which seems like a safe assumption given that Toothpaste U is -190 to win the Patriot League tournament (at BetMGM).

Checking into the boards

Unlike Rodney Dangerfield, the Rangers are starting to get a little respect. After a nice win over a deep St. Louis Blues team Wednesday night, the Rangers have moved up a bit in the eyes of the bookmakers.

They’re the No. 10 choice to win the Stanley Cup (at 20/1) at DraftKings, where they were 22/1 a week ago. They are the No. 7 choice to win the Eastern Conference at 11/1 and the third choice at 7/1 to win the Metropolitan Division. Their division odds actually got longer over the past week despite going 2-2.

The team that makes the best moves before the March 21 trade deadline could emerge from a pretty wide-open East, which puts a greater spotlight on the Rangers’ search for help. Sharks wing Tomas Hertl and Philly forward Claude Giroux are rumored to be among the trade targets the Rangers are considering.

Draft doings

In Mel Kiper Jr.’s latest mock draft at ESPN, the Jets are projected to pick Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton with the No. 4 overall pick and, right behind them, the Giants are projected to take Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux. Down at No. 25, he has Buffalo taking Georgia defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt.

Kiper’s colleague at ESPN, Todd McShay, cast a bit of shade on Thibodeaux when he said earlier this year that he “doesn’t play with the same fire as some other top prospects,” so Thibodeaux could have as much to prove in the interviews as he does in the on-field drills this weekend at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Hamilton, who didn’t play after injuring his knee against USC on Oct. 23, also has plenty to prove at the combine. McShay said he might be the second-best player available, but the injury will put a lot of scrutiny on his 40-yard dash and agility drills.

If you’re wondering, yes, you can bet on the NFL combine, so there’s another reason to watch a bunch of guys run around in shorts.

Photo: Dennis Schneidler/USA TODAY

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