- Cavaliers Win (-255)
- Celtics Cover Spread (-6.0, -110)
- OVER Wins (+205.5, -110)
LeBron & Cavaliers Face Immense Challenge
For the first time in nearly a decade, LeBron James might be in over his head. Despite a 42-point triple-double in game two, the Celtics routed the Cavaliers in Boston, sprinting to a 2-0 lead in the eastern conference finals. Cleveland was ahead at halftime, earning a 55-48 result after 24 minutes. Everything seemed to proceed according to script, including a monster first quarter from LeBron. King James had the finest first quarter of his illustrious career, scoring 21 points on 8-13 shooting, including 4-7 from beyond the arc.
Boston would run wild in the third quarter, outscoring the Cavs 36-22 to emerge with a seven-point cushion of their own. Most worrisome, Cleveland seemed defeated on-court, lacking the effort necessary to win playoff games against a fearless, motivated rival. There was no last-minute comeback push, as the Celtics cruised to a 107-94 win. Boston outperformed Cleveland across the entire hardcourt, maintaining defensive integrity while picking apart the Cavs for easy layups and open threes. Indiana challenged Cleveland, but Boston feels like a genuine threat to end LeBron’s eastern reign.
Any other club in the eastern conference would be written off by now, but the Cavaliers always have a shot at winning because of James existence. A 2-0 lead in a seven-game series overwhelmingly favors the team which wins the first two. In 300 best-of-sevens which start 2-0, the club with the lead wins 281 of those series – a win rate of 93.6%. LeBron changes the equation, with his teams winning two of six series after down 2-0, including Cleveland’s return from a 3-1 deficit to win the 2016 championship.
Historical stats aside, game three will be a must-win for the Cleveland Cavaliers. No team’s returned from an 0-3 deficit to win a series, and the Cavaliers aren’t equipped to win four playoff games in a row against an ascendant Celtics lineup which proves their mettle whenever a challenge arises. Sure, nobody will beat the Warriors or the Rockets in the NBA Finals, but LeBron doesn’t want to break a streak of eight consecutive eastern conference championships, while beating LeBron will benefit the Celtics young talent over the next decade.
Celtics Crew All-In On Stevens Defensive Plan
Similar to many playoff clubs, the Cavaliers live and die by the three-point shot. During the regular season, the Cavaliers hit 41% from beyond the arc in 50 wins, and their three-point rate dropped to 31% in 32 losses. This three-point shooting gap grew to 11% during the playoffs. As such, chasing the Cavaliers off the perimeter forms the heart of coach Brad Stevens defensive plan. Cleveland isn’t built to win through tight defense, relying on offensive explosion and the greatness of James to bludgeon their opponents.
The entire Boston Celtics lineup should be commended for executing the plan to perfection. Boston held James to 15 points in game one, with the Cavaliers shooting 4-26 from three. Most teams fold under 40-point LeBron triple-doubles, but the Celtics bent instead of breaking, surviving long enough to pull off their own game-defining run in the second half. Cleveland shooters improved to 32.3% on 31 attempts, but the Cavs simply couldn’t keep up with the Celtics hustle. After two games, Cleveland’s hit less than one of four of their threes.
Without solid three-point production, the rest of the Cavaliers issues become glaring and oppressive. Cleveland’s defense already has issues when the offense clicks, but the Cavs become horrible when forced to defend transitions. Hitting shots gives Cleveland time to return and organize on D, instead of wasting energy sprinting back to their own end – the type of effort which isn’t guaranteed from the Cavaliers. The backcourt suffers the most, with Rozier and Brown outscoring Hill and J.R. by a 41-3 margin in game two, rendering the LeBron advantage moot.
Look for Cavs coach Lue to pull off a few changes to the lineup after getting routed by an average of 19 points in two consecutive losses. When Tristan Thompson’s on the court, James doesn’t have the space needed to slash and kick to his heart’s content. Boston’s been hiding weak wing defenders on Thompson, daring Cleveland to clog the lane. This makes switching easier for Boston, who utilize this strategy to cover Korver-Love off-ball screens while forcing LeBron to shoot more often than optimal.
A super-small lineup with Love at center might give the Cavaliers shooting and space for LeBron to operate, but there’s no guarantee that this will be enough to defeat the Celtics four times in the next five games.
Cavaliers Need Momentum Spark In Ohio
All hope isn’t lost for the Cavaliers. Cleveland shoots far better at home, while the Boston Celtics haven’t played very well on the road. In fact, the Celtics won the first two games of the first round at home before losing three in Milwaukee to extend the series to seven. Boston took a game in Philly because of the 76ers youthful experience, losing by eleven in Philly during game four. Since the Celtics have one win over their last five road games, they’re rightfully the underdogs.
Cleveland have won five straight home games in the post season after losing their first game against the Pacers. The Cavaliers will need every advantage to climb back into this series, beginning with a massive momentum shift in Ohio. These Celtics will not beat themselves, unlike their previous series against the Raptors and Pacers. A close win for the Cavs won’t be enough to establish a foothold in this series. The Celtics belief will only grow in a one possession loss, making them more dangerous in game four.
Expect Cleveland to start strong again before the inevitable counterpunch from Boston. The Celtics have a better shot at winning this game than the six-point spread suggests. Even if they struggle on the road, they continue to fight, which increases the uncertainty of the Cavs beating the spread. If you’re wagering on the moneyline, the Cavaliers will be the safer bet at -255, while Boston’s spread (+6, -110) appears to offer solid value. Cleveland’s offense should improve greatly, unlike their defense, so pick the OVER (+205.5, -110). Game three tipoff begins at 8:30 PM EST on Saturday May 19th at the Quicken Loans Arena.