With the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers set to tip off the Eastern Conference Finals tonight, each team comes into this series on completely opposite ends of the spectrum and with very different expectations bestowed upon them by their fan base.
From the Raptors' perspective, this is the first time in franchise history that they will be playing in the Eastern Conference Finals, and many Raptors fans would think of this season as a semi-success even if they ultimately fell short of the Finals. The Raps won a franchise record 56 games this season and were expected to take care of business in the first and second rounds with ease. We all saw what happened; the Rap's struggled to put Indiana away, and in the semifinals I believe the Heat simply ran out of gas and options. It wasn't pretty, but they earned the right to fight for a spot in the NBA Finals.
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From a Cavaliers perspective, their saviour and king came back to deliver a championship to a city that has been mired in sports misery for far too long. Anything short of a four- or five-game victory would be seen as alarming, and anything short of a championship come June would be seen as an utter failure for LeBron and company. The Cavs made quick work of the Pistons and Hawks in the first two rounds and set records along the way. They were able to convert on 25 3-point attempts in Game 2 vs Atlanta, which is the new NBA record for 3-pointers made in a game.
The linesmakers are not showing any love for this Raptors squad as they have pegged the Cavaliers as a -1200 favorite for the series. If you like the underdog Raptors to pull off a "major upset," you can find some good value at +650.
I think the series will be closer and more hotly-contested than most people think, but I think the Cav's have one too many weapons for the Raptors and their terrible 3-point defense to handle. I think this series ends after five close games.
But before we get there, I will break down each game and try to identify key props for each game of this series. Each game takes on its own identity, and therefore there is money to be made going against the grain.
As always, odds and lines are courtesy of Bovada.
First Half Spread
Toronto +7.5 (-105)
It is a question that is asked of every team who is playing their first game back coming off a sweep in the prior round. Will there be any rust? And exactly how long will it take for them to shake it off?
The Cavaliers have been resting comfortably at home since Sunday, May 8. That is an entire nine days off - with just practices to keep sharp. The Raptors, on the other hand, are coming in on the back of a gruelling (ugly) seven-game series that just wrapped up on Sunday. You could argue one of two things with that. You could argue momentum will be on their side early in the game and they will be able to capitalize on it and take a lead, or you could argue that they will be emotionally drained and the rested Cavaliers will be ready to lay an ass whooping.
I am on the side of the fence that expects this series to be closer than most people are giving the Raptors credit for. On an individual basis, the Cavs are the far more talented team. But collectively the Raptors match up well in terms of chemistry and toughness.
Seven and a half points are a lot of points to lay in the first half of Game 1 of any playoff game, let alone the Eastern Conference Finals. I fully expect these teams to go through the "feel each other out" process to try to understand what kind of identity this game and the rest of the series will take.
If the Raptors are still on cloud nine after dispatching the Heat and can jump out to a quick lead, this seven-and-a-half-point spread shouldn't even come close to being tested.
Pick: Toronto Raptors +7.5 First Half (-105)
If the Raptors are to have any chance at winning this series, they are going to need to limit LeBron James and try to force someone else beat them. During the offseason Raptors GM Masai Ujiri signed DeMarre Carroll for this exact purpose - to be a catalyst on defense and try to limit the opposition's best player and make his 40-odd minutes a living hell.
I would like to believe the Raptors aren't stupid and are game-planning for LeBron like they've never game planned for someone before. They nearly let Paul George beat them single-handily and then almost lost to a 34-year-old, past-his-prime version of Dwayne Wade. That should tell them something right there. They must be better prepared for the opponent's star players.
King James is going to get his points. He's going to be a facilitator and get his teammates involved. He's going to be involved in every big play there will be in the series. The Raptors can live with that. What they can't live with is letting him be the reason they get beat. If they can limit him to 20-24 points a game and force someone else to step up and go off for 30-40+ points, then so be it.
Obviously that is easier said than done, but in this postseason I've come to terms with expecting the unexpected. That means Carroll will shut down James, and it'll be up to Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love to carry the team. Something I am not sold on them being able to do for Game 1 of this series.
Pick: "Under" 26 -115
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