Friday's NBA Essentials
May 19, 2017
By Tony Mejia
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Eastern Conference Finals
No. 2 Cleveland at No. 1 Boston (TNT, 8:30 p.m. ET)
In Game 1, the Cavs obliterated all hope that we might get a competitive conference finals in an NBA playoffs that has been light on games not decided until the final few possessions.
Fortunately for Boston, a series can't end on a first-round knockout.
It can't end in a Game 2 either, though the Celtics might want to cop to a TKO and skip the trip to Cleveland if they can't get off the mat and even the Eastern Conference finals up at home, keeping the Cavs from tying the 1988-89 Lakers with 13 consecutive playoff wins.
LeBron James dominated the opener with a masterful performance in leading the Cavs to a wire-to-wire 117-104 win that was nowhere near as close as the final score indicates. Realistically, Game 1 was over before halftime, following a 12-0 run that turned a 36-25 deficit into an insurmountable 23-point gap. The Cavs led by as many as 28 points and never allowed Boston within single-digits after the 53-second mark of the opening quarter.
The crowd at TD Garden was never allowed to truly become a factor as James largely toyed with defensive schemes he apparently saw coming in his extensive preparations.
What can change for Game 2? For our purposes, let's start with the spread. After opening as a 3.5-point home underdog, Boston closed at 4-to-4.5 dogs in Game 1. The eye-opening rout saw the Game 2 line open at 5 and quickly reach the 5.5-to-6 range as the public pounded the Cavs.
Considering the Celtics were behind three possessions-worth of points for the final time before the 5:00 mark of the opening quarter on Wednesday, this still seems like easy money. What remains to be seen is whether Boston has a completely different game in it this time around. That doesn't really start with defense, but rather, with 3-point shooting.
In Game 1 of the semifinal series against Washington, Boston erased a 16-0 deficit quickly by going on a 3-point barrage. They made 19 of the 39 they fired up, continuing a trend that began against the Bulls. Yes, the Celtics only survived Chicago after Rajon Rondo was lost, but their formula to reach these depths has been spreading the floor via the 3-pointer and defending with intensity on the opposite end. They averaged just shy of 15 made 3s in their victories over the Wizards and has to be the driving force hagainst Celveland.
James' size advantage against Celtics wings and his ability to create mismatches by getting to the rim or beating double-teams with his deft passing likely means Boston will struggle to find answers on defense, but they can still hang around if outside shots are falling. In the first half of Game 1, it shot 2-for-16 in the first half, going 1-for-8 in each quarter. They were down double-digits after the opening 12 minutes despite the Cavs starting off the game 0-for-5 from 3-point range. If the Cavs aren't hitting shots, that's no problem because of the quality shots their getting.
If the Celtics are off, they don't rebound well enough to make up the difference and can't set their defense properly to even have a chance at keeping Cleveland to its spots. The second half was won by Boston in part because of the Cavs being less aggressive due to their sizeabale lead, but going 10-for-22 from beyond the arc went a long way in helping them top the century mark for 10th time in 12 playoff games after scoring just 39 first-half points.
No one has hit more 3-pointers than Boston over the last month. Although the Cavs average 14 per game, Boston is right behind at 13 but has played six more games and has made nearly 70 more 3s since the playoffs have begun. They shoot them at a higher percentage too (35.1-to-32.9), so it's not out of the question that the Celtics will be able to play the 3-for-2 game, mix in some breaks and potentially steal a game on their home floor.
Cleveland isn't great at closing out on 3-pointers and struggled defensively throughout the collapse that cost it the No. 1 seed in the East down the stretch. Thus far in this postseason, they're surrendering nearly 35 percent shooting from 3-point range, while the Celtics are second behind OKC among the 16 playoff teams in holding teams to 31.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc. The key to making up the massive gulf of separation James provides sure seems like it's going to come here.
It probably won't come on the boards, where Cleveland only won Game 1 44-40 but seemed to dominate when it came to second-chance opportunities or rebounds that had to be corraled while the outcome still hadn't been decided. Boston probably won't be able to play two bigs on the floor at the same time given the mismatches that creates for James and Kyrie Irving in pick-and-roll situations. Considering Irving only scored 11 points on 11 shots and the teams combined for 4-for-25 3-point shooting, the fact we still got a higher-scoring game than the closing number in Game 1 was astounding.
Bettors riding the ‘over’ in Game 1 (219) cashed tickets on Wednesday and they had to work for the winner as the number connected in the final minute on a layup from Boston’s Kelly Olynyk.
Oddsmakers opened Game 2’s number at 220 and VegasInsider.com NBA analyst Chris David offered his thoughts on the opener and Friday’s total.
“The old adage ‘Defense wins Championships’ can be kicked to the rocks this postseason and the phrase should be ‘First to 120’ could easily replace it. Including the result from Game 1, the ‘over’ is now 17-7 since the conference semifinals and is 3-0 in the first three matchups of the conference finals,” said David.
“Even though the ‘under’ was the right side in Game 1, it’s hard to lean to the low side again just based on the offensive form from Cleveland. The Cavaliers dropped 117 on Wednesday and they only made 11 triples from downtown, which was tied for their second-worst effort in this year’s playoffs. They did make up for it at the free throw stripe by connecting on 28-of-35 (80%) freebies and I wouldn’t expect that number to drop that much in this series. Boston hasn’t been able to slow down Cleveland all season (116.4 PPG) and if you thought the Celtics were tired in Game 1, what’s going to change in Game 2? The team total for the Cavaliers is hovering at 112 ½ for Friday’s encounter and bettors should be aware that Boston’s defense (108.4 PPG) has been less productive at home in the postseason.”
Boston has to keep Kevin Love from being such a dependable outlet for James since the game really got away once he got loose for layups and open 3-point looks. The player the Celtics once coveted and Kelly Olynyk knocked out of the 2015 postseason scored 32 points and grabbed a team-high 12 rebounds. He had a 30-point, 15-rebound game against the C's in December too.
Despite the Game 1 rout, the Celtics are 9-3 ATS record over the last 12 contests. A run of five straight home covers ended for Boston, Cleveland is on a 6-0-1 ATS run over the past seven games. James-led teams are 20-0 upon going up 2-0.
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