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Friday's Playoff Essentials

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Playoff Results | Playoff Projections

Eastern Conference Finals - Game 6 - Celtics lead 3-2
Boston at Cleveland (-7, 201.5), ESPN, 8:35 ET

Hope your week went as planned. When it began on Monday, the dire circumstances that accompany Friday’s Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals once again ring true.

If the Celtics pull off the upset at Quicken Loans Arena, this might be the final time we ever see LeBron James suiting up for Cleveland. Even if they lose, it’s still possible that this will be James’ swan song playing for his hometown team since Boston gets to host Game 7.

To extend the series even that far, James must continue to at least get help at home from a supporting cast that has largely abandoned him at TD Garden. The Celtics feature young players in their rotation that you expect to struggle on the road in crucial games like these, but the Cavs don’t have that excuse.

J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson have won a championship. George Hill is closing in on 100 career playoff games. All three were awful in the 96-83 loss on Wednesday night. While James and Kevin Love managed to score 40 points while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field, the three other members of Tyronn Lue’s starting lineup combined to make just two of 14 shots. They were all liabilities on the offensive end and didn’t make enough of a dent defensively to justify being out there.

That’s where Lue most went wrong in Game 6, leaving Kyle Korver on the bench after he’d been the x-factor in both of the Cavs’ home wins, shooting 9-for-12. The excuse that Semi Ojeleye’s benching threw his substitution patterns for a loop was unacceptable, lending credence to the belief that he’s putting his team at a disadvantage from a strategy standpoint against Brad Stevens.

As things stand, a Boston team that came in +220 to win the series now has two chances to win one game in order to play their way into the NBA Finals. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward will watch on Friday and into June if the Celtics are still playing, which means that the team with the most championships in league history may play for one more with little chance to actually win one.

That’s not to say they can’t.

Although they would be a heavier underdog than they are in this series against the Western Conference champ, the potential that they run into a Houston team playing with a compromised Chris Paul could leave the door slightly ajar for the unlikely to transpire in order to cap a postseason that had largely gone as expected considering the four teams everyone expected would survive into the conference finals did exactly that.

Entering Friday’s action, both series underdogs own 3-2 leads despite being heavy underdogs entering Game 6. Full disclosure, I’ve pledged allegiance to both Cleveland and Golden State squaring off in a fourth consecutive NBA Finals and can honestly write that I haven’t deviated from that stance despite the current long odds.

That’s only half the battle. With Chris Paul’s status now a mystery, the Warriors are actually still favored in the series despite being down. Cleveland is currently an underdog to win at all despite being a substantial favorite to push things to the limit in tonight’s game.

Chris David of believes Cleveland will force a Game 7 but he doesn’t want to back the club on the points (-7) and the money-line (-350) is a tad inflated. He did offer an alternative approach for bettors that want to back the Cavaliers in Game 6.

“I expect Cleveland to win on Friday and set up a decisive finale on Sunday, but I’m still not willing to lay seven points with a team that has buried gamblers all season at home (12-27-2 ATS) plus it’s gone 3-5 ATS at home in the playoffs. I expect this game to be a dogfight and a potential matchup on Game 7 will likely be even tighter. Rather than taking a chance on the spread or betting $100 to win $28 on the money-line, I’d rather direct my attention to the Cavaliers on the adjusted series price,” explained David.

As of Friday, [...] had Cleveland listed as a plus-170 underdog (Bet $100 to win $170) to win the next two games and advance to the NBA Finals. Boston is a minus-200 favorite (Bet $100 to win $50).

David added, “Along with many other pundits, I picked Cleveland to win the series and I was calling for a victory in seven games. I believe that outcome will occur and catching a positive return (+170) heading into a Game 7 will provide me with a hedge and perhaps a middle if the Cavaliers end up laying points on Sunday.”

My exact series pick of Cavs in six was doomed in Wednesday’s loss, which was particularly disappointing since Terry Rozier shot so poorly, finishing 3-for-15, including 1-for-7 from beyond the arc. For the series, he’s 5-for-31 (22.6 percent), so it’s not like he’s adequately replacing Kyrie Irving like he did in turning back Milwaukee and Philadelphia. The fact is, he’s been a liability who the Celtics have had to overcome. Considering he’s fearless and due for a big performance, Boston could just be one hot flurry away from reaching a level the Cavs can’t get to, even at home.

LeBron looked visibly fatigued in Game 5, betrayed by tell-tale signs like his hands on his hips and other clear examples of being worn out. Considering he’s been carrying such a heavy load for so long, helping secure even a No. 4 see when they probably should’ve lost the Central Division, his exhaustion is to be expected. What remains to be seen is whether he can overcome it. If he can conquer fatigue, a series deficit would be nothing new.

“James is facing elimination in a non-Game 7 situation for the tenth time since 2009,” said NBA expert Kevin Rogers. “Over the last three seasons, the Cavaliers have not had their backs against the wall against an Eastern Conference opponent. Golden State sent Cleveland to the limit four times, as the Cavs went 2-2 SU and 2-1-1 ATS.

“In the only scenario in which Cleveland was a home favorite, the Cavaliers blew out the Warriors, 115-101 in their championship season of 2016 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. The last time James faced elimination against an Eastern foe came at Boston in 2012 as a member of the Heat, as Miami won by 19 points in Game 6 and eventually won the series.”

Although he’s 2-4 in attempting to try and rally his team from an 0-2 deficit, James has managed to get the job done in the conference finals against the Pistons in ’07 and the ’16 Finals vs. Golden State. Boston is 37-0 all-time after taking a 2-0 advantage. The Celtics are 1-6 on the road this postseason, suffering every loss by double-digits and barely claiming the win they managed to get.

Despite all the noise about James knowing he’s done in Cleveland and wanting no part of a 3-6 career Finals record that would likely be in his future if he manages to get his team back into the championship round, he’s been brilliant and can be counted on to show up here. For the series, he’s averaging 30.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 8.2 assists, shooting 53 percent from the field.

Love has averaged just 12 points over the past three games and has to fare better if the Cavs are going to pull this out. He’s performed worse at home than on the road against both the Pacers and Celtics after averaging 22 points in arguably his two most efficient games against Toronto, so nothing is a given. James is the only player who can be counted on, so betting on this game hinges on whether you believe he can raise the level of play of multiple teammates.

We’ve been treated exclusively to blowouts thus far in the conference finals. Boston has the potential to end that if it can gain its bearings early, but they were way behind in Games 3 and 4 before the first quarter ended and have dropped five of its seven road games by nine or more points.

Totals-wise, the number for Game 6 is the lowest of the series, opening at 201.5 and residing there entering Friday. The closing figure in every game thus far has been in the 204.5-207 range, typically winding up at 205-205.5. The under has prevailed in four of the five contests so it’s no surprise to see a dip since the teams combined for just 179 points in Game 5, the lowest output of the series.

Game 7, if necessary, will be played Sunday in Boston.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA or e-mail him at [email protected]

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