Who to Back in the NBA Finals

The NBA Finals get underway on Thursday with a repeat of 2015 between Cleveland and Golden State. The match-up was predictable at the start of the playoffs, but the way we got here was anything but mundane. Plenty of chest thumping and answered prayers were needed to arrive at the final two teams. Who has the edge heading into the finale, and what are the best betting angles? Today, I’m looking at the history between the squads and their seasons to-date in order to find out.

Last Year

Golden State beat Cleveland in six games last season to capture its first title in 40 years. Despite the Warriors holding home-court advantage, Cleveland was the more impressive squad early in the Finals. The Cavs forced overtime in Game 1, and then beat Golden State in OT during Game 2, despite losing point guard Kyrie Irving in Game 1. Irving joined forward Kevin Love on the sideline for the remainder of the series, and the short bench proved costly.

Cleveland managed to hold serve at home in Game 3, but then fatigue really seemed to set in. The Warriors dominated Game 4 and the fourth quarter of Game 5. In Game 6, the outcome was all but sealed in the third stanza.

The big difference in the series was efficiency. The Warriors shot 44-percent from the floor and 36-percent on threes while the Cavs managed 38-percent overall and 29-percent from outside the arc. Golden State also moved the ball around much better, averaging seven more assists per game (largely because they had more than one option, while the Cavs were relegated to a LeBron-only offense).

James certainly did his part for Cleveland, becoming the first player to lead the finals in points, assists, and rebounds. That said, Andre Iguodala, who’s primary job was to defend James, held the Cavs’ superstar to under 40-percent from the floor and only 31-percent on threes en route to being named series MVP.

Golden State

During the 2015-16 regular season the Warriors won an NBA-record 73 games. Without league MVP Steph Curry for six of the first ten games in the playoffs, Golden State went 8-2, largely breezing through the first two rounds. The West finals brought a much stiffer wind; down 3-1, the Warriors needed an incredible and improbable comeback to get past Oklahoma City. They were even down seven on the road in Game 6 with just over five minutes to play. Then their shooters took over. Klay Thompson hit a postseason-record 11 three pointers in the comeback and Curry sealed the deal with a couple daggers in the lane.

Like the regular season, Golden State leads the league in scoring during the playoffs. Their defense has taken a step back though. They were third in the NBA in field-goal percentage defense in the regular season. In the playoffs, they’re only fourth among the reduced field and seventh defending the three.

Cleveland

The Cavaliers earned the top seed in the East by virtue of their 57 wins, one more than Toronto. Prior to beating the Raptors in six games during the Conference Finals, the Cavs swept the Pistons and Hawks. Some of Cleveland’s regular season success should be credited to their schedule: they played the easiest slate in the NBA. But they were full value for their 8-0 start in the playoffs, hitting threes at a remarkable rate. They cooled down a bit in the conference finals, but are still connecting at a league-high 43.4-percent from beyond the arc and notching 14.4 triples per game.

That’s well up from the 36.2-percent and 10.7 they averaged in the regular season.

Over the 82 game slate, the Cavs were ranked in the middle of the NBA in field-goal percentage defense and a little better against the three. However, in the playoffs, the Cavs are below average in field-goal defense and sixth of 16 guarding the three.

Regular Season

The Warriors took both match-ups in the regular season, winning 89-83 on Christmas Day at home and then embarrassing the Cavs 132-98 on the road in January. During the first game, neither team shot well, but the Warriors 41-percent from the floor was considerably more efficient than Cleveland’s 32-percent. Golden State was out rebounded by six, and had a -5 turnover margin, but won thanks to terrific defense and a big game from Draymond Green.

The second meeting was a laugher. The Warriors led by 30 in the first half and made 19 threes in the blowout win. Steph Curry had 35 points and didn’t even play during the fourth quarter. 

Analysis

The Cavs have dominated the JV circuit – a.k.a. the Eastern Conference – during the playoffs. Now they’re stepping up to the senior level. Their success likely hinges on their new-found prowess from three. Of course, getting into a perimeter shooting contest with Thompson and Curry doesn’t seem like a good idea.

The Cavs are much more healthy than they were during the Finals last year, but there is a strong argument to be made that the Warriors are improved, too (73 wins vs. 67 victories in the regular season). While Golden State was taken to the brink against Oklahoma City, their ability to find a way is remarkable. That said, Curry has not looked 100-percent since returning from injury.

The Warriors are -210 to win the series and +360 to win in five games. Both bets are worthwhile. The Warriors lost just two home games during the regular season and dropped another in the playoffs. They have a good chance to take Game 1 and 2 at home. If they can grab either Game 3 or 4 on the road, they’ll return home for Game 5 with a chance to clinch. Given how they dominated the Cavs in Cleveland during the regular season, stealing Game 3 or 4 on the road is a decent bet.

LeBron James gets a lot of hype, and he is a generational player. But the Warriors are one of the greatest teams of all time. Backing the best team usually cashes tickets.

(Photo credit: Basket Streaming (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode].)