2018 NBA Conference Finals Preview: Warriors-Cavaliers IV, Anyone?

  • Cavaliers-Warriors IV is still in play as the NBA Playoffs move to the Conference Finals
  • Can the upstart Rockets and Celtics shock the incumbents?
  • WIll LeBron James continue his dominant postseason run?

And then there were four.

It’s been a quite a journey to get here, and maybe we should take a second to reflect on how some things changed, and how some things stayed the same.

Let’s start with the defending champion Golden State Warriors. A month ago today, they were getting crushed by 40 points (40!!) in their regular season finale by the Utah Jazz. A 7-10 stagger into the postseason left them as vulnerable as ever, or so it seemed.

Fast forward, and they’re right where they’re supposed to be: leading the postseason in scoring and assists, holding the opposition to the lowest field goal and three point percentage, and the favourite to win the title.

They now meet the Rockets in the showdown everyone was waiting for out west. Houston looked nothing like the dominant scoring machine that ripped apart the competition en route to the league’s best record,  with an uneven showing early on in Round 1 against the Timberwolves.

But rather than fold in the face of adversity, Houston’s shiny offseason acquisition Chris Paul has been the steadying and devastating force everything they’d hope he’d be to supplement Harden on those kind of off nights.

 

But rather than fold in the face of adversity, their shiny offseason acquisition Chris Paul has been the steadying and devastating force everyone hoped he’d be to supplement James Harden on his rare off nights.

On the other side of the bracket, there’s the Celtics, who everybody was jockeying to land as a potential playoff opponent. The team missing its two best players was a trendy pick to be sent packing early.

But now, here they are, with a makeshift roster that somehow flipped what many predicted to be a sweep at the hands of the upstart 76ers into a rather impressive five game series win.

And let’s not forget the old reliable Cavaliers, the team that was, by all accounts, ready to be buried by the Indiana Pacers. But with things slipping away down 2-1 in the series and trailing in Game 4, LeBron James got enough help to right the ship.

Since then, they’ve burned the Raptors to the ground, powered by James’ most impressive playoff run to date – and that’s saying something, considering it’s just two rounds in, and he is a three-time NBA champion.

Who will emerge? Well, we can’t say for sure, but we’re dam sure going to try.

Odds to Win the NBA Championship

  • Golden State Warriors: 3/2
  • Houston Rockets: 7/3
  • Cleveland Cavaliers: 3/1
  • Boston Celtics: 19/1

NBA Western Conference Finals Odds

(1) Houston Rockets vs (2) Golden State Warriors

These are the two highest scoring teams still standing in the NBA Playoffs, with the Warriors pumping in 110.3 points a contest, and Houston not far behind at 109.5.

While you expect the Rockets to tally up most of their points via the moneyball – which they do, nearly 39% of their points come from there – you’ll be slightly surprised to see that Golden State has scored over 57% of their points from two-point range, and more than 23% from the forgotten-in-the-regular-season midrange area. Apparently the Rockets didn’t get that memo, they’ve scored just 5.8% of their points this postseason in the midrange.

Part of the reason Golden State is scoring more from inside the arc has been their penchant as a sneaky-good offensive rebounding team. They’ve picked up nearly ten a game in the playoffs, and those extra possessions are lethal for a team shooting a playoff-best 46.9% from the field.

Part of the reason Golden State is scoring more from inside the arc has been their penchant as a sneaky-good offensive rebounding team. They’ve picked up nearly ten a game in the playoffs, and those extra possessions are lethal for a team shooting a playoff-best 46.9% from the field.

 

The Rockets’ best chance at beating Golden State is by outscoring them with a barrage of three-pointers, dunks inside, and free throws.

The added wrinkle has been Paul’s presence as a secondary creator when the offense bogs down or runs into cold stretches. He’s scoring 21.8 points per game, chipping in 6.4 assists and 5.5 rebounds while shooting a blistering 48.5% from the field.

For the Warriors, Kevin Durant has probably been the best player not named LeBron James in the playoffs, pouring in 28 points a game, along with eight rebounds and 5.6 assist per. Add scoring from Klay Thompson (21.2 points per game) and Draymond Green (13.1) and they are humming along before even mentioning that Steph Curry is looking pretty amazing since returning from a knee injury.

Harden will be great, but it’s hard to imagine Houston being able to match power with power over the course of a series.

Odds to win series: Golden State 7/13

Over/Under Series Length: 5.5 games

Over/Under Three pointers made in a single game: 30.5

Over/Under James Harden free throws made in series: 55.5

Over/Under Total points scored per game in series: 219.5

Over/Under Golden State Warriors technical fouls in series: 4.5

NBA Eastern Conference Finals Odds

(2) Boston Celtics vs (4) Cleveland Cavaliers

This is shaping up to be a battle of two brilliant minds between Cleveland’s do-everything megastar LeBron James and Celtics’ head coach Brad Stevens.

James has been an absolute wrecking ball in the postseason, averaging 34.3 point, 9.7 rebounds and 9.0 assists, while logging over 41 minutes a game. Simply put, there has been no answer for him.

What makes matters worse for the opposition is that Cleveland has finally unlocked the old Kevin Love, who has been beasting inside-outside, depending on how teams decide to guard him. After a slog of a first round match-up against Indy, Love crushed Toronto by scoring 20.5 points and 11.5 rebounds on 47.5% shooting.

Perhaps the biggest improvement, though, is how connected Cleveland looks on defense. This was a unit that was bludgeoned for more than 109 points a game in the regular season, figures linked more to bottom feeders like Phoenix and Brooklyn. But since the turn to the playoffs, they have dropped that down to 102 a game, which is currently fourth best in the postseason.

This is shaping up to be a battle of two brilliant minds between Cleveland’s do-everything megastar LeBron James and Celtics’ head coach Brad Stevens.

However, switching to good defense as opposed to defense being a cornerstone of your existence is a totally different thing, so don’t be too concerned that Boston is surrendering more points per game in the playoffs than Cleveland.

The Celtics have leaned on defense while missing Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, who aren’t coming back, while also missing, for stretches, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Shane Larkin. Their cohesion hasn’t wavered, and they’ve done an admirable job slowing down the main dudes on the opposition.

In Round 1, Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged over 25 points, 9.6 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game, which sounds brilliant, until you see his regular season numbers against the Celtics: 33.5 points, 10.75 rebounds and 5.0 assists over four games. They found a way to wall him off from the paint, where he so easily dominated them.

In the semi-finals, they held Ben Simmons to 14.4 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.4 assists. But most interesting was they limited him to just 11 field goal attempts per game, taking away the straight line drive he’d been so accustomed to using over his young career. Simmons, like the Greek Freak, was confused by what he was seeing.

Can they do the same with LeBron? They do have the horses to contain him, but Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are awfully young as the primary guys to try and disrupt James’ flow – and they need to be top contributors on the other end, as their lack of scoring could come back and haunt them.

The chess match will be fun to watch, but it’s hard to bet against the King.

Odds to win series: Cleveland 1/4

Over/Under Series Length: 4.5 games

Over/Under LeBron James triple-doubles in series: 2.5

Over/Under Kevin Love 20-point, 10-rebound games in series: 2.5

Over/Under Jayson Tatum 20-point games in series: 3.5

Over/Under Celtics held to under 100 points in a game during series: 1.5

Frank Lorenzo

MTS co-founder Frank “Let It Ride” Lorenzo has been betting on sports since he was legally allowed to do so. (Did he do so before then, too? No comment.) He enjoys very strong coffee, neon lights, and passing on his wealth of betting knowledge to anyone who will listen.