NBA Eastern Conference Finals Preview

Raptors (-4.5) over Heat 116-89

To say the betting market likes the Cleveland Cavaliers to beat the Toronto Raptors in the NBA's Eastern Conference Finals is an understatement. With the Cavs drawing a price tag of anywhere from (-1200) to (-1400), oddsmakers are saying the only question left is whether the Raptors can win a game - something both of Cleveland's previous playoff opponents have failed to do. Before jumping aboard the bandwagon though, let's dig into some data that suggests this series might not be a massive mismatch.

Consider the following regular season rankings for each team...

Cavs: 4th
Raptors: 5th

Cavs: 10th
Raptors: 11th

Cavs: T3rd
Raptors: 7th

Cavs: 7th
Raptors: T4th

These numbers suggest Cleveland is better, but that Toronto is competitive in the basics of scoring, defense, rebounding and shooting from behind the arc. That covers an awful lot for the Raptors to be this big of an underdog. Furthermore, Toronto won two of three regular season meetings.

So am I saying that Las Vegas doesn't know what it's talking about. Well, let's not get rash. While I take justifiable pride in my longstanding record in beating the oddsmakers, that record comes from respect for the opponent, not dissing them. There's another set of data that would support the notion of the Cavs being the heavy fave. Consider the following...

  • Cleveland is decisively better in Assists-To-Turnovers, at +5.2 per game while Toronto is +2.7. This goes directly to ball movement, and in this case goes right to LeBron James' extraordinary passing skills.
  • Cleveland is decisively better defending the arc. They are tied for 11th in the league in three-point shooting defense, while Toronto is near the bottom at 29th. Remember how hot the Cavs got in their series against Atlanta, lighting it up from downtown? Remember how hot J.R. Smith in particular can get? If the arc isn't defended adequately, it's easy to see the Cavs outperforming their regular season pace from three-point range.

Those are the statistical cases for Toronto and Cleveland respectively. Handicappers have to decide which of these sets they're going to build their selections off of, both for the series and individual games.

If you like the Raptors it's going to be worth your while in more ways than just the series price. They're also a (+10) underdog in Game 1 on Tuesday night in Cleveland. There are also options to express support for Toronto by betting them to stretch the series to six, or even seven games. While taking them to win the series might be foolhardy, there are a number of ways that belief in the Raptors can be bet on without going down with the ship.

With Cleveland, the choices are threefold - lay the big series price, lay the points game-by-game or take them to win the series in a sweep. The middle ground - game-by-game, has only had modest results for Cavs backers thus far. Cleveland is 5-3 ATS in their four-game sweeps of Detroit and Atlanta, and are only a bucket from that being a split. The fact the Cavs have to lay double digits against the second-best team in the Eastern Conference doesn't suggest a lot of value.

To wager Cleveland to sweep would have to be primarily about current form. The Cavs are playing their best basketball of the season right now. LeBron looks comfortable with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving for the first time in their two years together. LeBron has taken the unusual step of often deferring to Kyrie for shots, while taking on the burden of ball distribution for himself. Love, along with J.R. Smith, have had some hot games shooting threes, while Love is also hitting the boards again.

Meanwhile, while the Cavs swept their way through two rounds of the playoffs, the Raptors had to go the full seven to dispatch Indiana and Miami. Toronto was also a poor bet in the process, going 5-9 ATS in games where they were mostly a favorite.

Perhaps Toronto was ill-suited to the favorite's role and will be a smarter investment as an underdog. Perhaps the rebounding prowess shown by Bismark Biyombo down the stretch against the Heat will mitigate the loss of Jonas Valanciunas. Perhaps Kyle Lowry's hot shooting in Game 7 against Miami will be the end of his historic playoff difficulties and set him up to take advantage of Kyrie's defensive softness.

If that's the case, there's plenty of value to be found on the Raptors. I've made important decisions on whether and where I think they're good enough to do it. I invite you to join me for the winning in the Eastern Conference Finals.