Predictions for Each NBA Conference Finals Series
Each of the NBA’s Conference Finals prices come via TopBet and are accurate as of Friday, May 11. Though these odds shouldn’t move much, if at all, before these best-of-seven sets tip off, be sure to double back and confirm the odds before placing a wager. Most notably, you should definitely be doing this if you’re looking for futures odds after Game 1. Sportsbooks will adjust their lines based on the initial outcomes to these matchups.
Cleveland Cavaliers (-300) vs. Boston Celtics (+220)
After looking at these teams, the rosters, their play thus far, the injury reports and the odds, this feels like a trap series.
(Cuts to the voice inside your head.)
Of course the Cleveland Cavaliers are heavily favored! Why wouldn’t they be? They have LeBron James! They just swept the first-place Toronto Raptors so hard that they fired their head coach (Dwane Casey)! Shouldn’t the Boston Celtics be child’s play after that? Like, aren’t they missing Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, two of the NBA’s 20 best players? And isn’t Jaylen Brown playing through a hamstring injury? This should be over quickly.
No one’s here to tell you the mock thinking from above is wrong. It might not be. LeBron is playing like a man alive right now. He’s posting playoff career highs in points per 36 minutes, assist percentage, defensive rebounding rate and player efficiency rating. He’s also representing nearly 55 percent of the Cavaliers’ entire offense when looking at his scoring and the points he’s generating off assists—the largest such mark of his career.
Bake in the improved play of Kevin Love, the emergency of Tristan Thompson and the return of George Hill, and the Cavaliers seem primed to waltz their way into the NBA Finals. Never mind their Round 1 struggle against the Indiana Pacers. That was forever ago.
Again: This line of thought tracks. But the Celtics are here, four wins away from the NBA Finals themselves, for a reason. Head coach Brad Stevens is one of the better tacticians in the league, and despite a skeleton crew of from-scratch scorers, Boston is actually pretty deep at the offensive end.
Viewed separately, Jayson Tatum (a rookie), Jaylen Brown (a sophomore), Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris won’t seem that impressive. Throw Al Horford in there, too. Together, though, they give the Celtics just enough options at the shot-creator spots to get by. And while “get by” doesn’t imply excellence, it’s more than enough when you consider Boston’s suffocating defense.
Look no further than how they’ll tackle LeBron in this series. Brown, Tatum, Horford, Semi Ojeleye, even Marcus Smart will all see time on him. This isn’t to say they’ll all succeed. It isn’t even meant to imply one of them will—though the Semi matchup is really intriguing. But the Celtics do have the personnel to try guarding LeBron one-on-one while making an attempt to shut down Cleveland’s supporting their real primary focus.
All of that being said, it’s tough to pick against LeBron when the Celtics are missing their two biggest names. This is his eighth-straight Eastern Conference Finals appearance, and he’s undefeated through the previous seven. Though these Cavs may be the least talented team he’s ever helmed, he’s playing some of his best basketball ever. Don’t be tempted by the Celtics’ underdog odds. They’ll be lucky to push this thing six games.
The Pick: Cleveland Cavaliers (-300)
Golden State Warriors (-200) vs. Houston Rockets (+160)
Casual basketball fans and bettors may be taken aback by this line. The Houston Rockets just finished with the NBA’s best regular-season record by a comfortable margin. How could they not only be underdogs, but demonstrative underdogs at that?
Because the Golden State Warriors are, in a word, terrifying.
People made the mistake of interpreting their devil-may-care approach to the regular season as a harbinger of a new existence. It wasn’t. The Warriors were biding their time. They know how this works. They’ve been to three straight NBA Finals. They’re keen on conserving their energy until it matters most. And, well, the games matter now.
Make no bones about it, the Rockets pose a viable threat. James Harden couldn’t buy a bucket over the final two games of their Utah Jazz series—he shot just 2-of-14 from downtown—but he will be better. If he’s not, the Rockets have Chris Paul to fall back on. He took over in Games 4 and 5 of the second round, the latter of which included a career postseason high 41 points on 8-of-10 shooting from behind the arc.
The Rockets also have the three-point differential on their side. They average a little over four made three-pointers more than the Warriors per 100 possessions. If they can keep up that variance, they’ll force Golden State to win a bunch of games from behind. That’s not easy.
Equally important: The Rockets’ defense is for real. They switch a bunch and have shown they can get nasty with PJ Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute, PJ Tucker and Paul leading the charge. If they’re firing on all cylinders, the Warriors could be in trouble.
At the same time, it’s tough to worry too much about the Warriors. Yes, Kevin Durant is shooting 20 percent on wide-open threes for the playoffs (seriously). Sure, Stephen Curry is only four games into his return from a sprained MCL injury. And indeed, Klay Thompson went ice cold in Round 2 against the New Orleans Pelicans. But the Warriors have flipped their switch anyway. They are defending with more interest and vigor, and the minor offensive “struggles” from Durant and Thompson will normalize at some point.
If giving them the benefit of the doubt doesn’t sway you, take a look at Draymond Green. He’s the lifeblood of their playoff identity. He averaged a triple-double through the second round while canning 40 percent of his threes, and his defense has been picture perfect through and through.
Though Capela guarded more possessions off switches than anyone else in the league this year, Green has the capacity to run him off the floor when he plays center. The Rockets can turn to PJ Tucker at the 5 in those situations, but that might not be a sustainable model for more than a few minutes at a time.
Stashing Ryan Anderson at the 5, meanwhile, is impossible. He’ll get destroyed at the defensive end. It’ll be interesting to see whether he even gets playing time for Houston. Tack on Eric Gordon’s own shooting struggles—which have persisted basically all year—and the Rockets, at the bare minimum, are forcing both the star-power and depth battles.
Cross your fingers for a long series. Entertaining basketball is fun. But also be prepared for a shorter than expected go. It’s entirely possible the Warriors flex their muscles at the expense of the Rockets in five games.
The Pick: Golden State Warriors (-200)
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