Rivalry back on as Celtics, Sixers face off

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The 2018 NBA Playoffs are more than halfway complete with eight of the 16 teams having been eliminated and second round play having gotten underway this past weekend.

Over the weekend the final Eastern Conference series were decided as both Boston and Cleveland won Games 7 at home over Milwaukee and Indiana, respectively. The Celtics and Cavaliers will face Philadelphia and Toronto who had previously eliminated Miami and Washington.

Both Western Conference second round series began as Golden State won at home over New Orleans on Saturday and Houston similarly won at home on Sunday over Utah to take early one-game-to-none leads in the best of seven series.

Here are thoughts on the four second round series that will produce the four teams that will reach their Conference Finals to play for a chance to reach the NBA Finals in June.

Toronto vs. Cleveland: These teams met three times in the regular season with the home team winning all three. Toronto won the lone blowout between the teams, 133-99, in mid-January. The teams did not meet for more than two months but over the final three weeks of the season Cleveland won a pair of home games over the Raptors, by margins of 3 and 6 points.

Two of the three games went OVER the Total with the three games producing total points of 232, 261 and 218 points. None of the games went into overtime. There is pressure on both teams but perhaps much more is on Toronto considering their recent Playoffs failures combined with having finally earned the top seed in the East this season.

Toronto has added rest and is favored by 6.5 points in Tuesday’s Game 1. Cleveland was greatly taxed in winning Game 7 and has barely 48 hours to recover and get ready for what is arguably a more talented Raptors team, even with LeBron James on Cleveland. Without back to back games Cleveland’s experience will play a determining factor that likely has the Cavs getting by Toronto in six games.

I look for the teams to split the first two games in Toronto and thus will be looking to play on Cleveland in Game 1 and then playing the SU loser of Game 1 in Game 2. When the series shifts to Cleveland for Game 3 this should be the Cavs’ most favorable spot in the series but would be reluctant to lay more than a trey with the hosts.

Boston vs. Philadelphi: Boston won three of the four regular season meetings but it should be noted the teams have not met since Jan. 18 when the 76ers won their lone game against the Celtics. Boston had won a week earlier and their prior wins were in late October and late November. Philadelphia is a much better team than when these longtime foes last met and Boston is weakened by the absence of Kyrie Irving whose late regular season injury put him on the sidelines for the entirety of the Playoffs.

Interestingly the margins in the four games were nearly identical with Boston winning by 10, 11 and 11 points and Philly’s win coming by 9 points. Three of their four meetings stayed UNDER the Total with none of the games going into overtime. The 76ers had a fairly easy time getting by Miami in the opening round, splitting the first two games at home and then winning three straight, including both games in Miami. By the time you are reading this column the result of Monday’s Game 1 will be known.

Philadelphia is certainly playing the better basketball and is considered by most to be the better team as presently on the court, especially with Irving out for the Celtics. The 76ers opened as 2.5-point road favorites for Game 1 and, as of mid-Monday morning, were bet up to as high as -4. Boston had a couple of days to recover from their seven-game series against Milwaukee in which the home team won all seven games.

The 76ers are favored by slightly more than 4 to 1 to win the series and the prediction here is for them to prevail in six. But on a game to game basis there will be value in taking the points with Boston, especially at home. If the Celtics pulled the “upset” in Game 1 the play would be to back Philly in Game 2.

If the Celtics are looking to falling behind 0-2 Boston would be the play. When the series shifts to Philadelphia look to take what should be generous points with the Celtics. Depending on the results of the first two games, if the 76ers are favored by from 3 to 4 on the road it figures they would be favored by 7 to 8 points at home. Even shorthanded, Boston is a well coached team that plays excellent defense. Which also makes UNDER the preferred way to approach the Totals throughout the series.

Houston vs. Utah: Prior to Sunday’s opening game of this series Houston had won all four games against Utah in the regular season, winning at home by margins of 27 and 21 points and their wins in Utah coming by a margin of 11 points in both games. The Rockets improved to 5-0 both SU and ATS against the Jazz with their 110-96 win to open this series.

After their first three meetings went OVER the Total the last two, including Sunday’s win, stayed UNDER. Utah was at a major scheduling disadvantage in Sunday’s 110-96 loss to the Rockets, playing their third game in less than 48 hours with each game at a different site. Houston had been off for several days and was well rested with no travel involved. Utah has shown over the second half of the season that this is a well coached, unselfish team that can apply defensive pressure.

It is unlikely the Jazz can upset the Rockets and win this series. It is reasonable to expect more competitive games as the series wears on. Utah is getting the same 11.5 points in Wednesday’s Game 2 they got in Game 1. But with no travel involved and an extra day of rest Utah will have had the time to better prepare for the Rockets, which they really did not have in getting ready for Game 1.

The points are worth taking in Game 2 with the Jazz and if they lost SU as expected, they should still be solid underdogs back home in Game 3 and worth a play. I do not expect Utah to get swept in this series although I do expect Houston to need no more than six games to reach the Conference Finals with my forecast calling for Houston to advance in five games.

Golden State vs. New Orleans: The defending Champion Warriors defeated New Orleans in three of their four regular season meetings by margins of 8, 15 and 10 points. All three of those wins came in the first six weeks of the season. Their last regular season meeting was April 7. It was a 126-120 road win by the Pelicans as Golden State was coasting to the finish line, having already clinched the second seed in the West with no chance to catch Houston.

The Warriors opened this series with a resounding 123-101 home win last Saturday, easily covering as 7 point favorites. Four of their five meetings went OVER the Total although the Playoff opener did so by just half a point. Reports are that Steph Curry will make his first appearance in this season’s Playoffs in Tuesday’s Game 2. That will provide a spark to the Warriors even if Curry’s play is a bit rusty and his minutes are limited.

Much like my thoughts in the other Western series I do expect the favored Warriors to advance but for New Orleans to show more competitiveness than they did in Game 1. The Pelicans played well over the second half of the season even after the loss to injury of DeMarcus Cousins, putting all the pressure on Anthony Davis.

The Warriors probably win this series in five games with New Orleans’ best chances for a win coming back home in Game 3 when they are likely to be underdogs of from 4 to 6 points and possibly more depending on how Curry performs in Game 2. But keep an eye on the Pelicans for an attractive longshot Futures play for next season when those odds come out in another month or so.

These series will be reviewed next week when three or four games will have been played in each.

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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