The Second Round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs are all set, and after a few stressful early moments, everything is exactly as it was projected. Such is life in the NBA Playoffs – we get teased early with upset notions, only to have the better team assert themselves late and eventually prevail. Over the course of seven games, the best team USUALLY wins in the NBA.
So, can anyone knock off the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East and prevent LeBron from his seemingly inevitable seventh-straight NBA Finals? Is there any stopping Warriors vs. Cavs III?? Here’s a look at the three teams attempting to do so, and whether or not there is any value in the wager (numbers listed are current odds to WIN the Eastern Conference).
Toronto Raptors (+850)
It is easy to dismiss the Raptors as quick fodder for the Cavaliers. But the Raptors do have a veteran team and made a substantial upgrade midseason with the acquisition of Serge Ibaka. The finished the season with an identical record to the Cavaliers and actually finished with a better per game point differential at +4.3 ppg to +3.1 ppg. Over the past five years, different teams have come and gone as a challenger to LeBron; the Bulls, the Pacers, the Hawks, but the only constant Top Four team during that entire span has been the Raptors.
According to the ESPN BPI Index, this is actually a far more even series than the casual fan might think. They have the Cavs at just 53% to advance – making this a near toss-up according to the math guys and analytics.
Thaaaat said, you can ride with the math guys, I’m going to side with Vegas. They aren’t in the business of being cute or delivering click bait, they are in the business of making money. I personally like that business, for the record. And Vegas has this series priced far more appropriately; Cleveland at -550 and Toronto at +400. That’s quite a disconnect from the toss-up posited by ESPN.
The Raptors did win once this season against the Cavaliers, but it was game against the Cavaliers disinterested J.V. squad. Cleveland’s leading scorer that night was Iman Shumpert with ELEVEN POINTS. The other three games were all won by Cleveland, including a pair in Toronto. None were blowouts; the average margin was only 3.7 points, but they were all Cavs wins nonetheless. Now with the focus amplified and the stakes legitimate, expect the Cavs to tighten up the rotation and quickly dispatch the Raptors. I am never real big on massive favorite lines. -550 is a steep price, but it feels like an iron clad safe wager. Only a LeBron injury is getting the Raptors to the Conference Finals this season.
MY PICK: Toronto Raptors +900 – NO THANKS
Boston Celtics (+600)
By virtue of seed alone, this is the best play. The Celtics are the #1 seed and would have homecourt advantage in the Conference Finals. Of course, LeBron has been the #2 seed in the Playoffs four other times. He went to the Finals all four times. And even with Boston at +600, I’m not biting on the C’s. Again, I have a quibble with the BPI fellas as ESPN and their stat-driven percentages. I am all for analytics, but when you have the Celtics as a 66% favorite to advance past Washington and the Cavs just a 53% chance to slip past the postseason-averse Raptors, your data is seriously flawed.
I’ll go one step further. I’ll take the Wizards over the Celtics in the second round series, making Boston an even less-appealing wager. Washington’s backcourt is better, they have more versatile lineups and, most importantly, have multiple people who can create baskets. Boston has one and a half (I’ll give Horford “a half” on the assumption he gets the ball in the right place on the floor – which of course stretches the definition of “creating a shot.”)
For the sake of this argument, let’s assume they DO advance past the Wizards as seeding and BPI metrics expect. They are even more mismatched in a head-to-head with Cleveland. Sure, Kyrie struggles at times defensively, which could lead to a big series for Isaiah Thomas, but aside from IT, there is just WAY too little offense to knock of The King. Jae Crowder is a nice, versatile defender, but he is really the only option to check LeBron – which means LeBron cannot be checked in that series.
This season the Cavs and Celtics met four times and Cleveland took three of them, the last one in overwhelming and decisive fashion. The fourth matchup is the one that sticks in my mind because that game MATTERED a lot to Boston. At the time, it appeared that the winner would take the top seed – something that meant a lot more to the Celtics than the Cavs (Cleveland ended up tanking down the stretch and giving away the #1 seed anyway, but Boston didn’t know that at the time). The game was on ESPN, the game was at Boston, and the game was NEVER a game. Cleveland rolled over them 114-91 and rested their starters in the fourth quarter.
I have trouble seeing Boston providing any resistance for the Cavaliers, despite a lot of favorable numbers in the Celtics favor. Boston trails Cleveland in offensive efficiency by a point and a half (Cleveland ranks 3rd, Boston 8th in the NBA), but is far better defensively. Boston ranks 12th at 105.5 while Cleveland is 23rd at 108.0. For the record, no team with a defensive efficiency rating in the bottom half of the league has won an NBA Title. However, at no point in memory has the NBA been as much about pacing yourself for the “real season.” Are the Cavaliers incapable of defending, or were they simply indifferent about it up to this point? Their talent level and athleticism suggest more the latter.
Once the switch flips, there is no way Boston is beating Cleveland four times. I’ll pass on the Celtics at any price, but especially at +600.
My Pick: Boston Celtics +600 – I’LL PASS
Washington Wizards (+900)
Now we are talking. They are a good value to win the East at +900, a lot of that value derived from the fact they are substantial underdogs in the Boston series. If you feel, like I do, that Washington is going to in fact WIN that series, you are left with a 9:1 hedge opportunity at the very least. If Washington were to somehow steal a game in Cleveland to open the series? Hedge value goes bananas. This is the only play on the board that I like at all.
Not that I think the Wizards would actually win the series against Cleveland. I’ve said “Cavs win the East, don’t let the drama fool you” (and if any of you read my beat on TheSportsGeek.com, you’ve heard it dozens of times) since December. Nothing that Toronto, Boston or even Washington has done has swayed that opinion, however, Washington DOES match up the most favorably out of the three. They have a dynamic point guard in John Wall who could potentially outduel Kyrie Irving for the entire series. They also have legit scoring options at the two and three positions in Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, which means they can’t just put LeBron on John Wall to eliminate him from the series, ala the Bulls series where ‘Bron erased MVP Derrick Rose from the face of the Earth.
The Wizards also have some low-post scoring threats in Morris and Gortat, which means Kevin Love’s defensive weakness could be exposed and they can’t cheat down to help him on the block because of the well-spaced shooters. Washington played the Cavs three times this season, and yes, they lost two of them, but one of the losses was a candidate for Game of the Year, a 140-135 overtime thriller that NEVER should have gone into overtime because LEBRON CLEARLY TRAVELLED on the game-tying buzzer beating banked-in three pointer…
Alas, the Wiz split the other two, so at the very least they played Cleveland head-up the entire season, and they can play at a break-neck tempo which could pose some real challenges to one of the worst transitions defenses in the NBA (statistically, THE worst – though again, my question is was it talent or effort – and I lean the latter)
Several years ago, it felt like the Wizards were the up-and-coming challenger in the East. They took a major step backwards last season and it cost Randy Whitman his job. They reasserted themselves as a legit Eastern Conference upstart this year in Scotty Brooks’s first season at the helm and once again look like the most legitimate test to LeBron’s customary throne.
If we are going to quibble about the Cavs defensive efficiency, it is only fair to point out that the Wizards ranked a nearly-as-bad 20th this season, so there is no real defensive advantage for either team, and offensively, the Wizards are very good, but rank well behind the Cavaliers #3 position.
To clarify: I don’t think anyone is beating Cleveland four times in a series, but if any of the three teams can make it interesting, it is Washington. Given that they also have the meatiest odds, I’ll take a hedge flyer on John Wall and company making things exciting.
My Pick: WASHINGTON WIZARDS +900 – GOOD HEDGE OPPORTUNITY
The Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t without their flaws, but they are certainly the least-flawed team in the East, and they have one other major plus on their side; LEBRON JAMES. He has been to six straight Finals and I don’t see anything aside from freak injuries derailing number seven. The line is pretty reasonable at -300, or $300 to take home $100, and is certainly the safest wager on the board.
Best Bet: Cleveland Cavaliers -290
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