Golden State, Houston, Cleveland and Boston were expected to be the teams in the Conference Finals for the majority of the season.
Given Boston’s injury struggles, their chances were widely downplayed, and it is an achievement itself to make it this far. The other three, though, saw this as an expectation.
The Warriors and Cavaliers are aiming for a fourth-straight Finals. Houston and Boston hope to upset a reunion but remain underdogs in their respective series’.
Here are a few thoughts on the action - latest betting markets ahead of the NBA Conference Finals are available via this link.
Unsurprisingly, the reigning champion Warriors are the 13/25 favourites to progress from this series. Steve Kerr’s side dispatched the New Orleans Pelicans in the semi-finals and have banished many of the bad habits that saw them finish the regular season so poorly.
Draymond Green became the first Warrior ever to average a triple-double in a playoff series. When your fourth All-Star is doing that, things are probably going alright.
For the Rockets, even making the Conference Finals is an achievement of sorts given Chris Paul and James Harden’s patchy playoff CVs. After a hiccup in Game Two, Houston saw off the Utah Jazz in predictably comfortable fashion with Harden proving as good as unguardable again.
This series, despite all the stars on the court, may well come down to the bigs. Golden State are at their best with no big man on the floor, which will give Houston mismatches with Clint Capela. It could also see Golden State dominate with their off-ball movement. Houston’s challenge is to force Kerr to play one of Zaza Pachulia or JaVale McGee.
Houston had the better of the Warriors during the regular season, winning two of three. Golden State were a different animal then, however, as they battled their own disinterest in the 82-game marathon and injuries to key players.
A fully healthy Warriors team remain one of the most unstoppable forces in sport, and a lot lies on Mike D’Antoni to find a way to stop them. While I appreciate this isn’t the hottest take in basketball, I expect high scoring games all series.
This could easily come down to a shootout, but one the Warriors are likely to win. Over 223.5 points in the first game at 9/10 looks good value.
TIP: Golden State to win the series 4-1 @ 5/1
There were points during the regular season – and first round – that LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers looked like they would struggle to make the Conference Finals. LeBron then reminded everyone that he is, in fact, LeBron James. He carried his side through the series with the Pacers, before some assistance arrived against Toronto.
Kevin Love, JR Smith and Kyle Korver were all excellent against the deflated Raptors. Ty Lue needs more of the same from his non-LeBron players if they are to have the same sort of dominance against a Boston team that have defied everyone’s expectations to make it this far.
Brad Stevens is the likely Coach of the Year, and rightly so. Without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, the Celtics battled their way past the impressive Philadelphia 76ers. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have accelerated their ascent to superstardom, while the ever-reliable Al Horford was his usual self at both ends of the floor.
The Celtics, however, remain out at 23/10 to beat the Cavaliers. Plenty of that is simply down to LeBron. It is worth noting, too, that Boston were not quite as dominant in the semi-finals as the 4-1 scoreline made out.
It was execution in the fourth quarter that was really the difference, and Stevens’ side will have a hard time outdoing James on that front. Boston’s time will come. If they had Kyrie, this series would be almost impossible to pick.
Without that star power, and a player who can drop 50 points in a game, I have to side with a relatively comfortable Cavs victory. LeBron is heading to another NBA Finals.
TIP: Cleveland to win the series 4-1 @ 4/1
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*