Yes LeBron, East is up for grabs

Yes LeBron, East is up for grabs

April 24, 2018 3:05 AM
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Through the first two weekends of the NBA playoffs, the Eastern Conference remains a free-for-all.

Readers of this column know we’re ride-or-die on the Cavs to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, a stance that has already looked tired and foolish at times thus far this postseason. After squandering a 17-point halftime lead in Game 3, LeBron James and his troops were staring a 3-1 deficit in the face, trailing in the final minutes of Game 4 inside Indianapolis’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Kyle Korver made a couple of huge 3-pointers and the defense was able to get enough stops to put off an elimination game for at least a few games, drawing even thanks to a 104-100 win. You could make the argument that the Pacers have been the better team in the series and I’d struggle to deny they’re not more complete, but James’ dominance has been a consistent force.

Had Cleveland not fallen apart due to a terrible third quarter where James was as guilty as anyone of not aggressively putting Indiana away, it could already be one win from advancing to the next round. As things stand, they’ve never not been favored to win the series, even after falling behind 2-1. The series price entering the Week prior to Wednesday’s Game 5 has the Cavs at -400 to advance according to Westgate, with the Pacers a 3-to-1 (+300) underdog to deal James his first first-round defeat ever.

The room for error appears thin since Kevin Love is playing through a thumb injury and newly acquired point guard George Hill has been suffering through back pain, so James will need others to continue to emerge to survive through three series, but the fact is James’ presence may very well be enough as a driving force given the state of the rest of the conference.

Philadelphia is the only team entering the week with a series lead, having won a pair of games in Miami to go up 3-1. With center Joel Embiid back, the 76ers look formidable and have been installed by Westgate as 7-to-4 co-favorites alongside Toronto. They’re now 10-to-1 to win a championship.

Let that register for a second. The 76ers, who hadn’t made the playoffs since 2012 and have been the NBA’s laughingstock as the worst team in the entire league in that span, have better odds than Cleveland (12/1) to capture a title on the heels of the Eagles and Villanova winning it all in pro football and college basketball in 2018.

The Sixers were at 20/1 when the playoffs began and have gone from 4-to-1 to 7-to-4 to win the East.

The 76ers shot a brutal 7-for-36 from 3-point range at home in their only playoff loss, even blowing some wide open looks since they were clearly thrown off rhythm by the length and athleticism of Josh Richardson, James Johnson and Justise Winslow. J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova have all emerged as huge contributors alongside Embiid, 6-foot-10 point guard Ben Simmons and the underrated Dario Saric, who is quietly becoming a tremendous asset in his own right.

The common denominator is that Philadelphia’s Big Three are all experiencing their first postseason together and have yet to deal with adversity. That makes them difficult to trust in spite of their obvious edge in talent.

Second-seeded Boston won its first two games with youth leading the way as Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier all followed Al Horford’s lead in settling in at home. On the road, the Celtics weren’t as lucky, finding themselves largely outplayed in Milwaukee outside of a great Game 4 fourth-quarter comeback that got them the cover.

Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in that series, but his Bucks are 40-to-1 to win the East for a reason. There are still far too many lapses to trust. Boston remains 20-to-1 with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward ruled out the rest of the way, but it will get back Marcus Smart next series if they’re able to survive. 

I would stay away from both longshots and remain in the Cavs’ camp, especially since Toronto has squandered its chance to impose its will with an early rout of Washington, squandering a 2-0 series lead where it looked like the East’s rightful top seed and most superior team. In a complete reversal from what transpired in Game 1 and all regular season, the Wizards’ bench has managed to outplay Toronto’s reserves. 

Toronto hopes to have one of its most consistent bench performers available as backup point guard Fred VanVleet hopes to return from a shoulder injury that has limited him to just three minutes all series. If he’s unable to play, Delon Wright will continue to get extended minutes despite poorly.

The Raptors should figure things out enough to survive the Wizards, but it’s clear that they’re just as vulnerable as anyone else in the East. Cavs in the East remains the play.