Winning in the NBA Playoffs is different to chasing victories in the regular season. In the latter, you need to exploit the match-ups, execute well but also be mentally primed to come out on top.
In the post-season, with the stakes increased, motivation is rarely an x-factor. And thus the margin for upsets on any given night is much less than during an 82-game slugfest.
Which is a roundabout way of saying don’t worry about the defending champions. The Cleveland Cavaliers will be just fine in the race through the East – despite losing out on top seed to the Boston Celtics.
Why? Because, regardless of the MVP race (surely now a two-way choice between James Harden and Russell Westbrook), they still have the best and most dominant player in the game.
LeBron James isn’t about to let the Cavs cede their crown in the first round, especially against an Indiana Pacers team that just scraped in.
Game 1 of their series begins on Saturday with Cleveland 1.25 to prevail despite the self-confessed lack of chemistry they’ve shown of late.
But now there’s a reduced rotation and an assured belief from James, with everyone healthy again, their track record counts for something despite talk of a possible trap from the Pacers.
“Everyone loves an underdog and everyone loves an upset,” said TNT analyst Reggie Miller. “For me, will it happen against Indiana? A lot of things have to factor in and a lot of things have to fall into place. When LeBron James is healthy [and he] didn’t have Kyrie or Love in the Finals, he put on a show even though they lost to the Golden State Warriors.
“When [James] was healthy, he came back from being down three games to one. At the end of the day, we are in a new season now, the real season. A lot of times you’re just looking to get to the playoffs to turn on that switch. They know that they dominated Toronto and Boston in the postseason over the last few years. [Cleveland] is thinking, ‘so what if we start on the road, we know if we go into your building, we can dominate.’”
Best value for the opener is under 207.5 total points at 2.60. However there’s a good reason the Cavaliers are 1.33 for the Conference title with little to choose between Boston, Toronto and Washington behind them. And while Golden State – at 1.57 for the championship – are justifiable overall favourites, don’t expect the King to abdicate without a fight.
Elsewhere, the opening round looks set to go with seeding but there are two particularly intriguing battles. The Harden-Westbrook duel is going to bring a note of unpredictability to the Houston Rockets – Oklahoma City series which could generate road wins so have a look at the Thunder in the first meeting at a generous 2.28 on a handicap of +5.5 or a total points tally of under 222.5 at 2.60.
But the best chance of a lower seed coming through goes to the Utah Jazz against a LA Clippers team which might find Rudy Gobert an unsurmountable road block. Despite seven consecutive wins from the Clips, a league-leading defence from their rivals puts this one up for grabs with Utah at -1.5 in Sunday’s Game 1 at 3.05 worth a dabble.
Mark’s First Round picks
Boston 4-1 Chicago
Washington 4-3 Atlanta
Toronto 4-1 Milwaukee
Cleveland 4-1 Indiana
Golden State 4-0 Portland
Utah 4-3 LA Clippers
Houston 4-2 Oklahoma City
San Antonio 4-1 Memphis