It’s odd for a No. 1 seed to be cast in the underdog role, but the oddsmakers are calling this series the way almost everyone sees it. Isaiah Thomas and the Boston Celtics have little chance to advance.
By fending off Washington in seven games, the Celtics won the right to get eliminated by LeBron James.
Is it as simple as that? There are some reasons to believe Boston is capable of turning the Eastern Conference finals series into Cleveland’s first serious postseason test. Stopping the Cavaliers’ run to a third consecutive NBA Finals is another story.
Cleveland opened as a minus-650 favorite over Boston (plus-475), a surprisingly high series price considering the Celtics have home-court advantage. But Jeff Sherman, the top NBA oddsmaker at the Westgate, explained the price was set high to slow the flow of money expected on the favorite.
“A lot of people are looking to support the Cavaliers. We’re trying to minimize that risk with all of the anticipated action more than anything,” Sherman said. “I think the Celtics can make it competitive.”
The most recent meeting between the teams suggests otherwise. It was April 5 when the Cavaliers rolled into Boston and rocked the Celtics 114-91. James used pick-and-roll switches to exploit mismatches and repeatedly power his way to the rim en route to 36 points.
There’s no way to contain him, though Boston has two defenders — Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart — who will give it a shot. When doubled, James is a slick passer who finds open shooters. The Cavaliers made 15.3 3-pointers per game in their second-round sweep of Toronto.
James is averaging 34.4 points and shooting 46.8 percent on 3s in eight playoff games. He’s rested now, too, which most handicappers will see as an advantage. The Cavaliers will have had nine days off by the time Game 1 tips on Wednesday.
But rest often leads to rust — after extended time off, the Golden State Warriors were caught sleepwalking through the first half of Game 1 in the West finals — and the Celtics could capitalize on their momentum and rhythm.
Boston’s best and perhaps only chance to make it a competitive series comes in the opener. At the South Point sports book, Cleveland is a 4-point favorite in Game 1, up a tick from the opening line of 3½.
Thomas averaged 29.5 points against the Cavaliers in the regular season, yet the Celtics lost three of four. Boston will need big series performances out of shooting guard Avery Bradley, who will be the primary defender on Kyrie Irving, and center Al Horford to make Cleveland sweat.
It’s good to be home in Game 7
The Cavaliers are not invincible — all four of their first-round games against Indiana were decided by six points or fewer — and the environment in Boston will be hostile. It’s a long shot, but the Celtics can hope to push the series to seven.
In NBA playoff history, home teams are 102-26 (.797) in Game 7s. A majority of bettors played that trend Monday, and the Celtics cashed, closing as 5-point favorites and minus-240 on the moneyline in their 115-105 victory over the Wizards.
What is one player worth?
James is undoubtedly the NBA’s best player. Kawhi Leonard probably ranks No. 2. San Antonio led Golden State 78-55 at the 7:52 mark of the third quarter Sunday when Leonard left with another left ankle injury. The Warriors ripped off an 18-0 run over the next 3½ minutes on the way to a 113-111 win.
The Warriors closed as 10-point favorites, and the Game 2 line likely would have been 9 or 9½ with Leonard on the floor. But with him ruled out Tuesday, the line is 14. Leonard is worth at least four points to the line in this case, and it would be absolutely stunning if the Spurs win without him.
At the Westgate, the adjusted series price on Golden State soared to minus-5,000. The Warriors are minus-110 favorites to sweep and plus-150 to win the series in five games.