Cleveland Cavaliers vs Golden State Warriors: Complete Preview for 2018 NBA Finals
NBA Finals series prices come via TopBet and are accurate as of Tuesday, May 29. Make sure you’re quadruple-checking these lines before placing your wager. They will move between now and Game 1, given the discrepancy between Golden State and Cleveland. Also, unless the Warriors get off to a slow start by losing Game 1, now would be the time to invest in them. Sportsbooks will be on the verge of moving them to “off” if they snag victories in each of the opening two contests.
Cleveland Cavaliers (+650) vs. Golden State Warriors (-1100)
Well, this sure seems anti-climactic.
Never mind that the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are meeting once more after people talked themselves into one of them missing the big show. Rational fans and pundits knew this was always a possibility, if not the most likely outcome. Round 4 of Cavs-Warriors, in fact, felt more than inevitable to some.
Now that it’s here, though, we’re reminded of the chasm separating these two squads. LeBron James is heading toward his eighth straight Finals appearance, and ninth overall, and his team has never been counted out by the oddsmakers more than they’re being pegged as underdogs now.
To that end, many a bettor saw this coming, too. The Western Conference Finals, between the Houston Rockets and Warriors, was snarkily, yet genuinely, coined “The Real NBA Finals.” That happened for a reason—many of them, really.
Most of it has to do with the Cavaliers. They don’t appear good enough to wage war with the Warriors. James has been spectacular, churning out 40-point double-doubles like they’re just another stat line, but his supporting cast has been anything but a certainty.
The Cavaliers’ second-best player changes depending on the night. It could be Kevin Love. It could be George Hill. It could be Kyle Korver. It could be Jeff Green. That’s not a good thing, so don’t interpret it as such. This fluidity as the No. 2 spot does not showcase the Cavaliers’ versatility or success-by-committee style. It’s a nod to the shoddy help with which they’ve surrounded James.
Consider this: In each of Cleveland’s three previous trips to the NBA Finals, James had at least three teammates with a Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) of one or better. During his four Finals cameos with the Miami Heat, he always had four or more teammates with regular-season VORPs north of one.
This year, however, the Cavaliers give him Kevin Love, and that’s it. No one else, aside from James himself, ranks as high on the VORP scale. That’s a problem.
So, too, is the Cavaliers’ rotation. Head coach Tyronn Lue has rolled out eight different starting lineups across 18 postseason games. Though injuries haven’t helped consistency, his indecision has played a part in that lack of arrangement familiarity. Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. have all taken turns falling in and out of his good graces. While Lue may be trying to cater to the matchups at hand above all else, he’s created an environment in which a handful of players cannot have a firm hold on their expected role.
Love’s health is complicating matters even further. He missed most of Game 6 against the Boston Celtics and all of Game 7 while going through the NBA’s concussion protocol. He’ll play at some point in the Finals, but the Cavaliers have no idea whether he’ll be ready to rock for Game 1, according to Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon.
Whether or not he plays, Cleveland has some difficult decisions on its hand. Specifically: How will Lue counter the Warriors’ super-small approach during those minutes Draymond Green spends at the 5?
Keeping Love at power forward in those situations borders on disaster. The Cavaliers would attach him to Green, which would leave Tristan Thompson or Larry Nance Jr. to play Andre Iguodala or Klay Thompson.
Stashing Love at the 5, meanwhile, is not without its consequences. The Cavs would be punting on rim protection. They don’t have much of that anyway, but they need some level of resistance against Golden State’s drivers. Love isn’t it. Nor will he help with closeouts on the Warriors’ three-point attempts.
LeBron-Love frontcourt combinations have been statistical fire. The Cavs outscored opponents by 42.5 points per 100 possessions in the regular season with them at the 4 and 5, respectively, according to Cleaning The Glass. Bue Lue doesn’t turn to that duo often. He’s more inclined to use Jeff Green at power forward when Love plays center. And while that partnership is posting a top-notch defensive rating, it is due for some slippage and hasn’t panned out well on the offensive end; Cleveland is pumping in under 100 points per 100 possessions when Green plays the 4 with Love at the 5.
Look beyond the Cavaliers’ defensive issues, and you’ll find some offensive ones. They’ve yet to unearth a reliable secondary shot creator to LeBron James. Hood, Clarkson and George Hill were supposed to help there, but collectively, they’ve failed. Hood doesn’t play anymore, Clarkson refuses to pass and Hill continues to be a little passive with the ball in his hands.
On the bright side, Hill has the potential to provide some relief. The Cavaliers have played opponents to almost a statistical stalemate in the minutes he’s logged without James, per NBA.com. If he can keep that up, this team will be in a position to win some games.
That still doesn’t solve the from-scratch shot creation problem. Cleveland’s non-LeBron players are shooting under 34 percent from three and less than 30 percent on pull-up jumpers. Hill isn’t used to firing up looks off the dribble. Clarkson has the green light, but not the efficiency. The same goes for J.R. Smith. The Cavaliers may need to dust off Hood if they want a chance at deploying someone who can hit jumpers off the bounce.
Cleveland’s best hope at making this a series lies in Games 1 and 2. Steal one on the Warriors’ own floor, and the party changes. They can return to Cleveland for Games 3 and 4 haven’t stolen home-court advantage.
Granted, that entails actually beating the Warriors in their own Arena. That’s…not easy. But just as the Cavaliers have no idea what’s going on with Love, the Warriors are waiting to see whether Iguodala is healthy enough to play. He missed the final four games of the Western Conference Finals dealing with a left knee injury. The Warriors aren’t sure whether he’ll be available to start this series, per ESPN.com’s Chris Haynes.
Playing without Iguodala wouldn’t portend doom and gloom for Golden State. He’s no longer the primary LeBron James defender. That responsibility falls on Kevin Durant; he guarded LeBron on more possessions in the regular season than anyone on the Warriors.
Still, Iguodala is supposed to pitch in with that assignment. LeBron will invariably play more minutes than Durant. The Warriors need a body to throw on him for at least those stretches. Plus, whatever time Iggy doesn’t spend on James will be dedicated to stalemating the Cavaliers’ most active off-ball weapon—aka Kyle Korver. Not having him hurts. It has a trickle-down effect that demands more from everyone, including Green and Thompson, while making it a tick harder to hide Curry on the weakest offensive option.
Also of note: The Warriors are bagging under 37 percent of their wide-open three-point looks for the playoffs. That’s abnormally low for them. Both Durant and Green are hitting less than 30 percent of their uncontested triples. Missing those looks could come back to haunt them against the Cavaliers.
And yet, even with all the Warriors’ potential flaws in mind, right down to a thin wing rotation, it’s hard to pick against them. LeBron has shouldered an unfathomable workload all postseason; he’s logged about as many minutes during this bracket (743) as he did all of last year (744). He’s already seemed gassed in other games, and that exhaustion will only destroy Cleveland against the Warriors.
Forget about James’ uptick in turnovers. He’s less likely to get back in transition after missing a shot if he’s tired. And the Warriors are first in pace and fourth in efficiency when attacking off defensive rebounds, according to Inpredictable. The Cavaliers, by contrast, are the league’s worst team when it comes to fending off buckets in those situations.
Feel free to talk yourself into Cleveland avoiding a sweep. James alone should be enough for a victory. He might even be enough for two. Anything more than that? Not so much. You can revisit the Cavaliers’ odds if they steal Game 1 or Game 2. They should remain fairly lucrative and come with the added benefit of possibly working out.
In the meantime, avoid funnelling too much into their pre-Finals odds. You’re most likely going to regret it. If you’re not interested in the Warriors’ price—which is understandable, given that they’re laying a -1100—surf the prop-bet section instead.
Prediction: Golden State Warriors (-1100) in five
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