The Eastern Conference Finals have yet to begin, but the end result appears to be a foregone conclusion. It seems that no one is predicting the Toronto Raptors to upset the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the oddsmakers have made LeBron James and Co. overwhelming favorites.
The Cavs have -1400 betting odds to win the series at BetOnline, and the Raptors are +925 underdogs. Cleveland has been the favorite in the East all season long as James looks to reach his sixth consecutive NBA Finals. With eight straight wins, the Cavs are playing even better than expected, and there’s little reason to believe that won’t continue against Toronto.
The Raptors are coming off another hard-fought series, defeating the Miami Heat in Game 7 on Sunday. Toronto needed seven games to get out of the first round, as well, while Cleveland has played just eight total games since the regular season ended. When the Cavs take the court in Game 1 on Tuesday, it will be their first contest in nine days.
''I've always said anytime you get an opportunity to get some rest throughout the course of our season, it's always beneficial for anybody,'' James told reporters on Sunday. ''Doesn't matter if you're a 31-year-old guy who's played a lot of basketball or you're a 19-year-old kid who just came into the league. It doesn't matter - you get a couple days in the postseason, there's a benefit.''
Cleveland had a week to rest after sweeping the Detroit Pistons in the first round, and they opened their second-round series with a nine-point victory over the Atlanta Hawks. When the Raptors started their second-round series just two days after they beat the Indiana Pacers in Game 7, Toronto was upset at home by Miami.
Toronto finished the regular season just one game behind Cleveland in the standings. Two of their 56 wins came against the Cavs in three tries, proving that they can compete with the No.1 seed in the East. But success against Cleveland in the regular season hasn’t translated to the playoffs.
After taking three out of four regular-season games against Cleveland, Detroit went 0-4 against the Cavs in the first round. Last year, the Hawks won three of their four games against the Cavs, but Cleveland swept Atlanta in the Eastern Conference Finals.
''We're a totally different team than the regular season,'' James said.
James averaged a career-low 35.6 minutes per game in the regular season and finished third in the MVP voting. But he isn’t holding anything back in the playoffs, playing at least 40 minutes in five of the team’s eight games.
The Raptors’ first win over the Cavs came a month into the season when Kyrie Irving still hadn’t played yet because of a knee injury. Toronto won by four points, and Cleveland was plus-15 with James on the court. Three months later, the Raptors got a two-point home win over the Cavs as Cleveland outscored Toronto by 10 points when James was on the floor.
The Cavaliers relied on three-point shooting in the regular season, making 10.7 threes per game. But Cleveland has shot at an historic rate in the playoffs, making 16.8 threes per game on 46.2 percent shooting. The Cavs are bound to cool off somewhat, but their ability to score from behind the arc could make this a short series.
Cleveland won’t remain unbeaten for the entirety of the postseason. With the NBA’s second-best backcourt behind only that of the Golden State Warriors, Toronto has two of the top five players in the series. Big performances by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan could help the Raptors steal a game or two.
Lowry came on strong at the end of last series, averaging 32 points in Games 5-7, and DeRozan has had three 30-point games in the postseason. But the Raptors could be without center Jonas Valancuinas for a few more games with a sprained ankle, and they don’t have enough pieces to pose much of a threat to Cleveland.
As the Cavs entered the Eastern Conference Finals against Atlanta last year, there was plenty of talk about DeMarre Carroll and his ability to stop James. All James did was score 121 total points in a four-game sweep while nearly averaging a triple-double. With Carroll on the Raptors this year and James eyeing another title, he should have another big series as Cleveland strolls to the NBA Finals.
Prediction: Cleveland in five
Game 1: at Cleveland, Tuesday, May 17, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 2: at Cleveland, Thursday, May 19, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 3: at Toronto, Saturday, May 21, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 4: at Toronto, Monday, May 23, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 5: at Cleveland, Wednesday, May 25, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)*
Game 6: at Toronto, Friday, May 27, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)*
Game 7: at Cleveland, Sunday, May 29, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)*