LeBron James intended to play the full 48 minutes in Sunday’s 105-101 Game 7 win over Indiana but cramped up. His legs, as human as yours and mine, gave out for a few minutes. He exited at a critical juncture and returned to an even bigger lead than the 75-73 edge his Cavs enjoyed when he left the floor with a minute left in the third.
That’s one reason you can cling to if you’re getting in on grabbing the +170 series price prop on Cleveland for their Eastern Conference semifinal series against top-seeded Toronto. Westgate listed the Raptors as a favorite of -200 since they’re a good bet to win Game 1, opening at home as the better rested team.
I’d imagine it’s going to be difficult to win at the Air Canada Centre given how tired James looked in the closing stages of the series clincher, but a series isn’t one in the opener. Waiting to pounce on the Cavs down 1-0 for a substantial profit would be the move I’d recommend.
It wouldn’t be surprising if some readers are snake-bitten from backing Cleveland. The Cavs were no friends to bettors in the first round, covering only Game 4’s spread. It appeared that they would reward loyalty as they pulled away in the closing stages of Game 7, covering 5.5 points after James’ game-clinching layup put them up 102-96 with 30 seconds left.
Victor Oladipo missed a 3-pointer out of a timeout, James grabbed the board and missed one of two free-throws, beginning a trend that ultimately doomed the cover. In the final 15.4 seconds, George Hill, an 80 percent free-throw shooter, missed two of four from the stripe after knocking down his first seven. Oladipo drained a long three in the final second after Thaddeus Young gathered the rebound and got him the ball, bailing out Indiana-backers.
James found Oladipo to tell him what a great series he played and then conveyed that he was spent in the postgame presser, repeating that he just wanted to go home. Hopefully he got a great night’s sleep in his bed on Sunday because he’ll open his eyes Tuesday in a different city. In this case, in a different country.
The Raptors were perfect at home, straight up and against the spread, in the first round against Washington. Their 34-7 regular-season home record tied Houston as the NBA’s best and included a 133-99 win in the Cavs’ lone visit on Jan. 11. Given that they ramp up the intensity level on the #WetheNorth campaign, it’s no surprise to see most books open the Game 1 spread at 6, which is likely the range where Game 2’s number should reside. The number had increased to 6.5 at most spots on Monday afternoon.
DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry haven’t inspired confidence when it matters most and didn’t alleviate any concerns since the Cavs won the last two meetings between the teams in Cleveland.
Westgate has the Cavs at 7-to-2 to get out of the East, and despite the problems on full display in the first round, the fact James was able to get his team out of the series with such little support bodes well for future success since it’s impossible that everyone around him will continue to struggle.
Philadelphia is favored at 5-to-4, while Toronto is right behind them at 8-to-5. The Celtics are considered the long shot at 15-to-1 and don’t have great value considering that standout young wing Jaylen Brown is dealing with a hamstring issue that will likely hinder him for the rest of the playoffs. Already depleted, that will prove too much to overcome.
I’d agree that the 76ers deserve to be the current favorite. That’s extremely strange to write but entirely true. They’ve got an easier path than the Cavs and Raptors. They’ve looked most formidable, turning back the Heat once Joel Embiid returned.
Eight teams remain alive, but realistically, three can be cast aside. With Stephen Curry set to return, Golden State will finish off New Orleans. Utah is a terrific story and Donovan Mitchell’s rise has been something to see, but Houston’s ability to strike from the perimeter nullifies the edge center Rudy Gobert affords the Jazz. The Rockets and Warriors will meet in a Western Conference finals that will be must-see TV.
In the East, the 76ers will continue a magical year for Philadelphia sports by dismissing the Celtics.
The only mystery that remains is whether they’ll open the series at home against the LeBron-led Cavs or up in Canada against the Raptors.
If Cleveland can get Love to produce in the manner he did when James was out due to cramps to open the fourth quarter, it can survive another round. James is playing too well to fade.
He averaged 34.4 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists against the Pacers, shooting over 50 percent from the field. He missed a key free-throw for the Game 7 cover but got most of his issues at the charity stripe squared away, connecting on 25 in a row at one point.
If Love can finally get on track after a dreadful first few games after injuring ligaments in his thumb, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver and the now healthy George Hill should hit enough shots to keep the Raptors honest. The Cavs have gotten very little out of Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood, which should change on the principle that they can’t do any worse.
The Cavs withstood a series deficit multiple times in the first round and persevered, even surviving losing a substantial Game 7 lead. With Tristan Thompson showing a pulse and Jeff Green joining Larry Nance Jr. as bigger bodies Ty Lue can utilize to help counter Toronto’s edge in size, the Cavs should be able to overcome a likely 1-0 deficit and are worth backing.
The 76ers are favorites. LeBron is an underdog. Strange times.