To say the NBA Playoffs have become very interesting would be a huge understatement.
A week ago it was all but a foregone conclusion that Golden State would be facing Cleveland in the NBA Finals as they seek to complete their record setting 73 win regular season with a second straight NBA Title.
In the Eastern Conference the question was not whether Cleveland would defeat Toronto to win the NBA Finals but if the Cavs could complete a third straight four-game series sweep to enter the Finals with a 12-0 Playoffs record.
It all made sense. After all, the Warriors had entered the Western Conference Finals having won 81 of 92 games, not having lost back-to-back games all season. Only twice had Golden State lost two games in a three-game stretch.
Cleveland lost last season’s NBA Finals to Golden State in six games, and the Cavs were without Kevin Love for most of the Playoffs and Kyrie Irving was injured in overtime of Game 1 and missed the remainder of the Finals.
In the middle of this season coach David Blatt was fired and replaced by assistant Tyronn Lue. Although the Cavs earned the top Eastern seed by just a single game over Toronto, things fell into place with sweeps of first Detroit and then Atlanta.
But that’s why they play the games.
Oklahoma City took the lead in the Western Finals with their 108-102 road win to open the series. As expected, the Warriors evened the series with a decisive 118-91 win in Game 2. But the Thunder had served notice they were not going to be an easy out for the Warriors on Golden State’s path to the Finals.
That was made quite clear on Sunday night when what had been a competitive game became anything but. Tied at 40 in the second quarter, the Thunder exploded for a 32-7 run to lead 72-47 at the half. At one point in the third quarter the lead reached 41 points in OKC’s 133-105 win that gave the Thunder a 2-games-to-1 lead headed into Tuesday’s Game 4. If the Warriors are to advance to the Finals this series will have to go at least six games.
The Warriors struggle might not be such a bad thing. Goliath is rarely beloved although the Warriors are as close to a likeable Goliath as we’ve seen in sports in some time. Still, few like to see Goliath run rampage over their adversaries with little resistance. Ultimately Goliath usually wins. But Goliath squirming a bit adds intrigue to what otherwise was thought to be an absolutely predestined outcome.
Though not a Goliath in the same sense as Golden State, and certainly not nearly as beloved, Cleveland extended its unbeaten playoff run to 10 straight wins with easy 31 and 19 point home wins to open their series with Toronto. Bet up from 5- to 6-point road favorites in Saturday’s Game 3 in Toronto, the Cavs trailed for most of the contest as the Raptors won 99-84 and at least show some signs of making this a competitive series.
For both series Game 4 will be crucial. Cleveland should be the play back home in Game 5 if they won Game 4 and are in position to wrap up the series to clinch a berth in the NBA Finals. The Cavs will likely be 11 or 12 point favorites as they were in Games 1 and 2.
The Cavs would not want to take any chances of letting Toronto back into the series heading back home for a potential Game 6 and should not take the Raptors lightly even with a 3-games-to-1 lead. Toronto has shown a tendency to lose intensity when they’ve fallen well behind and that is a distinct possibility in a clinching Game 5.
If the Raptors stepped up on Monday and defeated the Cavs to even the series Toronto would have to be considered for play as a double digit dog in Game 5. Although it would be highly unlikely that Toronto would pull an outright upset in Game 5 for a third straight win, we could see a renewed level of confidence following a pair of home wins that suddenly turned this into a competitive series.
Cleveland would be playable in Games 6 or 7 if needed, although the most likely scenario is this series ends in five games.
Tuesday’s Game 4 in Oklahoma City will be the Warriors’ first true test of the entire season. Faced with the possibility of falling down 3-games-to-1 with a loss, Golden State’s confidence level will be tested following that shocking 28 point loss in Game 3.
There is the possibility the Warriors’ Draymond Green will be suspended for kicking Steven Adams in the groin in the second quarter, an event that seemed to energize the Thunder as evidenced by their subsequent domination of the contest.
From a betting perspective it might be wise to pass on a side selection for Game 4 and perhaps look to play the UNDER, a play that might be enhanced if Green is suspended. Golden State would be the play in Game 5 whether seeking to avoid elimination or in position to take a 3-games-to-2 lead.
In either spot the Warriors will be solid favorites, probably in the range of from 7 to 9 points, which they were favored by in Games 1 and 2.
The Warriors will either be desperate to keep their season alive or, if they won Game 4, catching an OKC team that will know they blew their best chance to become the favorite to win the series had they defeated Golden State in that key fourth game.
It will be tempting to make a case for the Thunder back home in a potential Game 6 if made the underdog in what will be an elimination game for one of these teams. And if there is a Game 7 the Thunder could again be considered as a play if getting at least 10 points.
Golden State would have to be favored by 6 points or less in order to consider them for play with confidence, considering how competitive OKC would have been to that point.
By next week’s column we will know the Eastern Conference team to play in the NBA Finals. If the Western Conference series does not go 7 games we will know that team as well, and a preview of the NBA Finals will be presented.
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]