A lot changes in the NBA in two weeks – it was exactly two weeks ago when the Cavs played the Pacers in Game 7 of the First Round and the Pacers gave the Cavs everything they could handle. Public perception on the Cavs after that series was gloomy and Vegas listed the Cavs at +190 for the series to beat the Raptors and +7 in Toronto for Game 1 (how ridiculous does that look now?). Now, fresh off a sweep of the Raptors, public perception has drastically shifted in a positive light for Lebron and the Cavs as they are listed at -290 (74.4% probability) for the series to beat the Celtics and are currently 2 point favorites on the road vs the Celtics. Boston, meanwhile, just beat up on a 76ers team many expected to make the NBA Finals let alone the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics are still heavy underdogs in this series even after dominating the 76ers and many don’t think they have a chance against Lebron.
No matter where your predictions stand for the series it’s hard to make an argument that the value on the pointspread is with the Cavs. To go from a +190 series underdog to a -290 favorite from one series to the next (when the competition gets tougher) in a span of a week and a half is absurd. The Celtics opened at +5 in Game 1 at home vs the 76ers and that was clearly a mistake – the Celtics went 4-1 ATS in that series and the lack of line adjustment throughout the series had people questioning what Vegas was thinking (shout out to the people who always say “Vegas KNOWS” and “Vegas is SOO good”). Vegas knew as much as my 8 year old nephew saying Ben Simmons was going to the Finals (sorry kid).
So here we are again – the imposter NBA fans who don’t watch the first two rounds of the playoffs are hopping in now, knowing that Kyrie and Hayward are out, knowing that Lebron just swept the Raptors, and most of them think the Celtics have no shot. Lebron will find a way to win this series in a dogfight and overcome his supporting cast’s weaknesses but this series will resemble the Cavs/Pacers series much more than it will resemble the Cavs/Raptors series. The Raptors mentally broke down vs Lebron. The Celtics won’t.
Here are a few X-factors in this series:
- Brad Stevens attacking Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith on defense:
Stevens did it to J.J. Redick in the 76ers series – he found the weakest link on the 76ers defense and attacked it. Redick couldn’t handle Tatum or Brown off the dribble and was a mismatch when Marcus Smart posted him up down low. I watched game replays of the Cavs/Raptors and Cavs/Pacers series and saw multiple times when Korver was beat off the dribble, backdoor, and off the ball. Korver wasn’t exposed as much because he defended OG Anunoby most of the game and he averaged just 5.9 ppg for the season. The Celtics have multiple guys they can force a mismatch with on Korver and they will attack it often. As for JR, his defense has gotten so much better from years’ past but he will still be the inferior part of a matchup on defense vs Rozier, Brown, Smart or Tatum. He did a commendable job guarding Victor Oladipo for most of the Pacers’ series but Oladipo still got to the rim and did what he wanted (and good luck doubling Rozier off of ballscreens like they did against Oladipo…the Celtics will make you pay).
2. Will Kevin Love keep up his productivity?
Love had a bad first series. Then he came on strong against the Raptors – 25 ppg in Games 2-4 and dominated inside and out. He looks healthier and he should have a pretty good series against the Celtics but the 25 ppg were 7.4 ppg more than he averaged for the season and 7 ppg more than he’s averaged for his career. Plus, Serge Ibaka looked mentally worn down in the last series and saw his minutes get cut. Love will face more athletic players in this series when he’s on the perimeter and will have to deal with bruising defenders Baynes and Horford when he’s in the post. His numbers against the Raptors were more an anomaly than the norm.
3. Lebron will be guarded 1 on 1
Good luck with this one, C’s. The reality is that Lebron is going to go off and do what he does. He’s been incredible and will obviously win whatever matchup he is in. The Celtics have shown multiple times that they are willing to play their opponent’s best player 1 on 1 with the strategy of limiting the other 4 players on the court – they did it vs Giannis, they did it vs Simmons, and they’ll do it again vs Lebron. Stevens will throw a mix of Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and even Semi Ojeleye at times against Lebron…but they won’t double unless they absolutely have to late in the series. Do not expect Lebron’s supporting cast to beat the Celtics’ supporting cast – if/when the Cavs win this series it will be because Lebron overcompensated for what his teammates didn’t do. Which brings me to the next point….
4. Celtics’ 3 point defense is very, very good
They held J.J. Redick to 13-38 (34.2%) from 3 in the series. The guy shot 42% from behind the line on the year and is a 41.6% career 3 point shooter. They basically ran Robert Covington out of the starting lineup because he shot just 6-24 (25%) from 3 in the series. Ilyasova shot just 3/14 (21.4%) from 3 for the series and he shot 36.1% for the season. See a pattern here? The Celtics dominate their matchups with role players and force the other team’s superstars to go above and beyond. They owned the 3rd best 3 point defense in the NBA at home and 4th best FG percentage.
5. Celtics at home are tough
The Celtics were listed as underdogs at home 11 times this year. They went 11-0 ATS and 10-1 SU in that span (including 3-0 ATS and SU against the 76ers). They have the 3rd best home defense in the NBA. They will win one game at home in the first two and Lebron will have to rally to try to build a 3-1 lead when the series shifts to Cleveland.
This is going to be a great series. The Celtics are going to give the Cavs’ role players problems but Lebron should come out on top for the series because he can just take games over in the 4th quarter when he has to.
As for Game 1 I’m backing the Celtics +2. The Celtics should grab at least one game at home in the first two games before this series goes to Cleveland. The Celtics have the better coach and Ty Lue will have to adjust to Stevens’ gameplan later in this series more so than the other way around. The Cavs lost Game 1 to the Pacers at home 98-80 and would have lost Game 1 at Toronto had the Raptors not melted down and blown a 4th quarter lead. The Celtics are 11-0 ATS and 10-1 SU this year as home underdogs and I’m not fading it here. This is a game to set the tone for the series and you’re going to get a good fight from the home team with 2 points in your favor.
Celtics +2, 1.5 units (1 to 5 unit scale)
*for context, the Game 5 winner on Celtics ML over the 76ers was 3.5 units. I’m +3 units for the playoffs and looking to build on the momentum.
Enjoy the game and pay some attention to mom during the hours of 3:30-6PM ET today.