Although there’s plenty of intrigue among the NBA’s four Conference Semifinal matchups this spring, most of those series look like they have clear favorites.
A panel of nearly two-dozen ESPN experts unanimously selected the Rockets and Warriors to earn spots in the Western Conference Finals by defeating the Jazz and Pelicans, respectively. Utah and New Orleans looked great in the first round and could still give the favorites a run for their money, but their Game 1 performances didn’t inspire a ton of confidence.
In the East, ESPN’s panel heavily favors the Sixers over the Celtics in the first of two Eastern Conference series. If Kyrie Irving and/or Gordon Hayward were healthy, this would be a more fascinating matchup, but as well-coached as the Celtics are, they may not have the talent to keep up with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid for seven games. Despite holding home court advantage, Boston enters the series as a major underdog, with 18 of 21 ESPN experts picking the 76ers to win.
That leaves one series, the Raptors vs. the Cavaliers, as a potential toss-up. The analytics data – along with each team’s performance in the regular season and first round – favors the Raptors, but history favors the Cavs. After all, Cleveland has eliminated Toronto in each of the past two postseasons, winning eight of 10 games over the Raptors in those two series.
There’s reason to believe that this year’s Raptors squad can end that streak. The club is deeper than ever, featuring the NBA’s best five-man bench unit. Additionally, star guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have bought into an offensive system that features more ball movement and less isolation play. That system has been a huge success all season long, including against the Cavs — the Raps averaged nearly 123 points per game vs. Cleveland in three regular season contests.
Still, the Cavs won two of those three games during the regular season. While LeBron James‘ play keyed those victories – particularly in a 35-point, 17-assist, 0-turnover performance in March – Cleveland’s supporting cast came up big too. Kevin Love, Jose Calderon, and Jeff Green played particularly well in the Cavs’ two wins over Toronto, and George Hill racked up 22 points in March’s game. If Cleveland’s role players can keep up that sort of production against the Raps in the postseason, it would take a huge load off James, who carried the team to a first-round win.
This will be a fascinating series to watch. Does LeBron still have Toronto’s number? Will he get more help vs. Toronto than he did against Indiana? Will the Raptors’ home-court advantage be a deciding factor? (Both of their regular-season losses to the Cavs came in Cleveland).
ESPN’s experts favor the Cavs by a 12-7 margin, but the oddsmakers at Bovada.lv view the Raptors as a 2-to-1 favorite. Which side do you fall on? Is this the year the Raps dethrone the King and end James’ streak of seven straight NBA Finals appearances, or will LeBron and the Cavs eliminate Toronto for a third straight season?
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