LAS VEGAS — Everybody wants round three. And I mean everybody.
OK, if you are in New England or south central Texas, you are the exception. But the rest of us are hoping and expecting that the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors will meet again for the NBA championship.
I hate to discount the Boston Celtics and the San Antonio Spurs so quickly, but I did not see anything over the past week that says either team can get to the NBA Finals.
So how do we make a buck on Cleveland and Golden State when they are so short priced? The Warriors are odds-on favorites of 1-3 around town to win their second title in three years. The Cavs are 11-5 to make it two in a row.
In the search for value I am reluctant to go in on the Warriors to go 16-0. At South Point, the odds are 6-1 that they run the table and 1-9 that they do not. No, I do not expect Golden State to get through the playoffs unscathed. Even if the Spurs cannot gather themselves in Games 3 and 4 of this round, I do not see the Warriors sweeping the Cavaliers. Then again I thought the Cavs might be rusty in Game 1 at Boston. How did that work out?
Teams do bond when they go on the road. The Cavs probably found that there is not a diversity of distractions like there is at home. If you go back to 2001 when Philadelphia played Shaq and Kobe and the Lakers, Allen Iverson and the Sixers went into the Staples Center and stole Game 1. They did not win again.
That does not make the Celtics’ performance Wednesday night any less disappointing. They did not have a Kawhi Leonard type of injury to blame for how poorly they played on defense – and how badly they shot at the start of a game in their own building.
But I tend to give the Cavaliers credit for what they did. LeBron James was unstoppable, and Kevin Love threw in a career game. The Celtics clearly had not completely recovered mentally from their seven-game grind against the Wizards. They will have to change the way they defend LeBron when they play Game 2 Friday night. You cannot stop him with Jae Crowder or any one player. Double teams are a must.
On the other end of the floor Al Horford and Kelly Olynyk did not show up offensively, and that really hurt the Celtics. They need those two guys to help Isaiah Thomas, who I thought played well and played hard in Game 1. Still, the path to the rim that was so available to LeBron James was not there for Isaiah. Not with Tristan Thompson showing how good a defender he can be.
For all this talk about the Cavs being such a bad defensive team, when James comes after you in a close-out, you are in deep trouble. He can get there in a hurry, and the Celtics are going to find that out again – and again and again.
As for the Spurs and Warriors, I certainly hope that Leonard is healthy and can play Saturday night. Maybe that will allow San Antonio to steal a game at home. We would all like to see the Spurs be competitive in the short term and give the Warriors a challenge, but they have got a bigger issue facing them. Leonard is by far San Antonio’s best player, and that team will be rebuilding around him. That is why the Spurs have to be careful with Leonard now. Their future depends on him.
For now the Spurs have two big puzzles to solve if they are to avoid being swept by Golden State. One is LaMarcus Aldridge. I thought he would be a better player and a better shooter than what he has shown in the first two games of this series. I want to cut him some slack, though, because of the heart arrhythmia that he experienced just two months ago. It may be behind him physically, but it has to have a longer-lasting mental impact.
But the bigger issue for San Antonio in this series is finding someone to step in for Tony Parker. The Spurs have had a harder time replacing him at the point than they have had replacing Leonard. Parker’s quadriceps injury has him out for the rest of the playoffs, and who knows if that will send him into retirement? Patty Mills seems to get lost when he is out there, and that is why Gregg Popovich sends 39-year-old Manu Ginóbili to run the floor. I am a bit of a fan of rookie Dejounte Murray because he is so long, and he can help the Spurs defensively in a way Mills cannot, but his inexperience is a factor, too.
As for the Warriors, Steve Kerr is on the road in San Antonio. Despite his back trouble he will be in the locker room as he was for each of the first two games in Oakland. He is being much more active than he was in the Utah series. It is clear that he has a lot more concerns about the Spurs, and even though Mike Brown is on the bench, Kerr is pulling the strings behind the scenes.
One thing Kerr cannot do right now is make the Warriors’ bench any deeper. That was something that had to give so that they could make room for Kevin Durant and his salary last summer. With Andre Iguodala and Zaza Pachulia hurting, that bench is just not as good. Iguodala will be critical in the next series, because he will take LeBron.
That’s right. I am still thinking ahead to the NBA Finals. That is because no one here in Vegas really thinks that the Spurs can come all the way back in this series even if Leonard returns. They would have to win four of five games right now, and that is just not going to happen. It is the same situation the Celtics want to avoid in the East – and why Game 2 of that series is so important. No question about it. We are looking at a Cavaliers sweep if the Celtics lose Friday night. And we are probably looking at two very-rested teams going into the Finals.
So let’s look ahead to the biggest individual matchup – and that will be LeBron James vs. Draymond Green. That is going to be a monster. Green lost his cool last year and got suspended from Game 5. That was when the Warriors’ 3-1 lead began to crumble.
So who wins? I will not take a position on the Finals just yet. I am not as convinced as the public has been that the Warriors are automatic against the Cavaliers. I guess that is how impressed I was watching the Cavs on Wednesday.
Instead, I would be looking to see the spreads on the individual games. The oddsmakers here in Las Vegas have got to be thinking about that right now. I would not think that they can post a big number either way.
One way or another there will be a lot to enjoy when the Cavs finally meet the Warriors – and end the 11½-month wait for them to be together again for the third time.
It is hard for me to handicap the Preakness Stakes, because I am really pulling for Always Dreaming to have a chance at the Triple Crown.
I liked Classic Empire coming into the Kentucky Derby, and after he still managed to finish fourth despite all the traffic he faced, I give him a shot to win on Saturday. But his jockey Julien Leparoux has an enormous distraction now.
Leparoux’s name was the latest to show up in a federal fraud investigation. The Justice Department said he and at least three other athletes were fleeced by a financial manager who used to be on John Calipari’s Kentucky basketball staff.
Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports reported on Thursday that an indictment against Leon Smith accused him of stealing money from Leparoux nearly five years ago and forging his signature on two tax-refund checks from the IRS. Smith pleaded not guilty in a court appearance Monday to charges that he defrauded the four athletes in question out of $1.3 million.
Leparoux dodged a question about the story Thursday, but now that his name is out there this will not go away soon – certainly not before Saturday’s race.
Either way – at 4-5 on Always Dreaming or 3-1 on Classic Empire – there is not a lot of money to be made putting a win bet on either horse. One of my guys in the desert – Ron Flatter – tells me that one way to make money on the Preakness is with a rolling double or a pick-3 using a ticket that includes both of the Preakness favorites.
Betting this race aside, how much does a live Triple Crown chance going into the Belmont really mean? About $37 million. That is how much the handle dropped last year on Belmont day from what it was in 2015, when American Pharoah completed his Triple Crown.
We will have so much more interest in horse-racing talk if Always Dreaming wins the Preakness and gives the Belmont Stakes more importance. For those of us who love the sport, that is what we hope for. Trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velázquez are the richest earners ever in their crafts, they are very close, and they are as good as it gets. If they can put together a Triple Crown bid, it will be worth every cent that we bet – both for and against them.