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Following last Tuesday’s 118-94 home win over Golden State it appeared as though Oklahoma City was headed for the NBA Finals against Cleveland.

That 24-point home win in Game 4 followed the Thunder’s 28-point victory in Game 3 and gave OKC what was considered, and indeed was, a commanding 3 games to 1 lead in the Western Conference Finals and put the defending NBA Champion and regular season record-setting Warriors a game away from elimination. In order to return to the NBA Finals, Golden State would literally be facing a trio of “must win” games – and win each – lest their season be over and their 73 wins be nearly for naught.

Defending champions don’t back down and rarely go easily, and such has been the case with Warriors. As expected, Golden State prevailed in last Thursday’s Game 5, winning at home, 120-111, to force a Game 6 in Oklahoma City on Saturday. Trailing for much of that contest, including a 7-point deficit with about 5 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Warriors rallied to defeat OKC, 108-101, to force a Game 7 on Monday night to conclude the Memorial Day weekend.

When last week’s issue of GamingToday went to press Cleveland led Toronto 2 games to 1 in the Eastern Conference Finals, having seen its streak of 10 straight wins to start this season’s playoffs end two nights earlier with Game 4 in Toronto last Monday night. Toronto defeated the Cavaliers to even the series, sending the series back to Cleveland in what had become a best-of-three series.

Cleveland routed the Raptors last Wednesday in Cleveland, 116-78, to take a 3-2 lead. Cleveland’s 38-point win was the eighth by the home team in eight meetings between the Cavs and Raptors this season. To avoid a winner-take-all seventh game the Cavs needed to win in Toronto last Friday night. The Cavs left little doubt they were the best in the East with a resounding 113-87 win, leading by 6 after one quarter, by 14 at the half and holding Toronto to just 14 fourth quarter points.

Cleveland advances to a second straight NBA Finals and awaits the winner of Monday night’s Game 7 between Golden State and Oklahoma City. The Cavs’ LeBron James becomes just the eighth player in NBA history to play in six straight NBA Finals. What makes this feat even more impressive is the other seven players were members of the Boston Celtics of the late Fifties and early-to-mid-Sixties. It was a different era and a different game back then so the fact James has done something that had not been done in 50 years is a testament to both his talent and leadership.

Regardless of whether we get a rematch of the Warriors and Cavs from a year ago, or see Cleveland tangle with an OKC team that would have defeated two of the best teams in NBA history – teams that won 73 and 67 regular season games – we should be treated to a very entertaining and quite competitive Finals.

Cleveland lost both meetings with Golden State during the regular season, falling in a low scoring contest in Oakland on Christmas Day, 89-83, but barely covering as 6.5 point road underdogs. Less than a month later, on January 18, the Cavs were favored at home by 3.5 points but were blown out 132-98.

The results were entirely different when the Cavs faced the Thunder as Cleveland won – and covered – both meetings. Played just over two months apart the Cavs won 104-100 on Dec. 17, covering as 2-point home favorites. On February 21, shortly after the All Star break, the Cavs won at Oklahoma City, 115-92, routing the Thunder as 3-point road underdogs.

Blindly using these results would suggest the Warriors would defeat the Cavs but the Cavs would defeat the Thunder. Indeed, the series prices may reflect those sentiments, although if the Cavs are favored over OKC it would be a slight margin and likely due to Cleveland having the home court advantage in that series whereas the Warriors would have that edge if Golden State faces the Cavs. Golden State would be a larger favorite over the Cavs, perhaps in the neighborhood of 2-to-1.

Recall that Cleveland was short handed in last season’s Finals. Kevin Love was lost for the playoffs early in Cleveland’s opening round series against Boston. Kyrie Irving was injured in the overtime of Game 1 and missed the rest of the Finals. In fact, the first two games went to overtime with Golden State winning the first and Cleveland the second, sending the series to Cleveland tied a game apiece.

Cleveland seized a 2-1 lead with a 5-point win in Game 3 before the Warriors won the next three games to take the Finals in six with wins by 21, 13 and 8 points.

The case for Cleveland to defeat Golden State this season revolves largely on the availability of both Love and Irving, giving LeBron James the quality support he lacked last season. Additionally, the Cavs will be fresher at the start of this series that begins on Thursday. Golden State will have expended much energy in overcoming the 3-games-to-1 deficit if they succeeded in defeating Oklahoma City Monday night.

The case against Cleveland includes the perception the Cavs faced much weaker opposition in the East than did the Warriors in the West. And after starting with 10 straight Playoff wins those back-to-back losses in Toronto raised some concerns about the Cavs’ ability to play well in such an energized environment as they will encounter in the series’ first two games.

A win by Golden State Monday night would show the proverbial “heart of a champion” the Warriors would have displayed in reaching a second straight Finals. The matchups that plagued them against OKC would not be present against the Cavs, most notably the huge rebounding disadvantage they faced against the Thunder.

The Warriors showed signs of fatigue several times during the Playoffs and not just against OKC. Portland also tested the Warriors even though that series lasted just five games. The key in this series might be Cleveland’s ability to win one of the first two games at Golden State.

The Cavs are likely to be generously priced underdogs in both Games 1 and 2 and can be played if getting at least 7 points. The expectation is for at least one cover by the Cavs before returning home. This is a better Cleveland team than the one that lost in six games last season.

The call is for this series to go the full seven games but for Golden State to successfully defend its title by winning a decisive Game 7 at home. The series handicaps as more higher scoring than lower. Both Irving and Love are considered major defensive liabilities for Cleveland and that might make the OVER the preferred play throughout a Cavs/Warriors series.

Note that in their series against Toronto, four of the six games fell within 3 points of the closing Total. In the two meetings between Cleveland and Golden State this season, the first stayed UNDER by 35.5 points and the rematch went OVER by 20.5 points with neither game going into overtime.

Cleveland’s drought of a half century since its last major professional title has an excellent chance of materializing if Oklahoma City is the opponent in the Finals. It can be argued LeBron James would be the best player on the court but the OKC’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the two next best players with some observers putting Durant right up there with LeBron.

Oklahoma City does have a strong front court but the Cavs might rate the nod with the deeper bench. On the sidelines a pair of rookie head coaches will be matching wits, deciding on rotations, substitutions, matchups and strategies. In what handicaps as an uptempo series the Cavs have more reliable scoring options. LeBron has matured as a leader and is intent upon fulfilling his promise to his hometown fans.

It is only conjecture if with a healthy supporting cast he would have delivered last season. With healthy teammates and another season of playing together the chances for the Cavs to deliver are better. The call in this series is for Cleveland to defeat Oklahoma City in six games, winning on the road against a Thunder team that will have a bright future next season – if Kevin Durant decides to remain when he enters free agency this summer.

Next week’s column will review the status of the Finals after the first two games have been played on Thursday and Sunday and Game 3 scheduled for Wednesday, June 8.

Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to GamingToday readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Email: [email protected]

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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