Ever since the Cleveland Cavaliers stormed back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals over the Golden State Warriors last year the basketball world has been anticipating the two powerhouses tangling for a third straight title match in 2017. The regular season was expected to be just an 82-game placeholder for the Cavs and Warriors to settle their differences. So as the 2017 playoffs get underway how has that worked out?
According to online bookie bet365, that is exactly how the NBA regular season played out. The Golden State Warriors are the prohibitive 4/7 favorite to avenge that 2016 collapse in the Finals and the Cavaliers are listed as 15/4 to defend the title. Other than the perennially dangerous San Antonio Spurs, at 15/2, no other team is given anything more than a long shot chance to emerge from the playoffs as champion.
The Warriors set the all-time mark for regular season wins in 2015-2016 with 73. For a follow-up Golden State won “only” 67 games, becoming the first franchise in league history to win at least 67 games and play .800 ball for three straight years. By some metrics, Golden State enjoyed an even better season this time around. Their biggest obstacle was working superstar Kevin Durant into an All-Star packed lineup. Durant missed a chunk of the second half of the season with a leg injury but the rangy forward is healthy again and the Warriors finished the regular season on a 9-1 run. Anyone betting against this team this time will be hoping for misfortune to arrive some way, somehow.
San Antonio was the only other team in the NBA to win more than 55 regular season games. The Spurs’ 61 wins qualified them for the playoffs for the 20th straight year. Those first 19 featured soon-to-be Hall of Famer and now retired Tim Duncan. Led by the MVP-caliber play of Kawhi Leonard and his 25.7 points per game, the transition to a Duncan-less era has been a smooth one.
Bettors probing for an advantage for one team or the other in an expected Warriors-Spurs clash will come up empty handed to justify a wager. San Antonio won two of the three regular season meetings but one was the season opener and all of the games were one-sided. In late March, when both teams were dueling for supremacy in the West, Golden State dispatched the Spurs in San Antonio after which Gregg Popovich essentially shut down the regular season. San Antonio went on to lose four of its final five games however they had already locked the number two seed in the West.
If there is a dark horse lurking in the West it is in Los Angeles with the Clippers. The names are familiar – Chris Paul, 18 points and 9 assists per game; Blake Griffin, 22 points and 8 rebounds; and DeAndre Jordan, 14 points and 13 rebounds – but so too is this crew’s lack of success. Despite its talented core, the Clippers have never made it to the Western Conference finals. This may be the last hurrah for this bunch and the journey begins with the Utah Jazz, a tough first-round opponent known for its defensive-studded veterans.
The Cavaliers are still expected to reach the NBA Finals from the East despite a tumultuous end of the season. Cleveland lost 15 of its final 26 games, and an apparent willingness to play defense. If any punter sees this regular season malaise as an ominous foretelling of things to come in the playoffs, it is best to wait beyond the first round match-up with the Indiana Pacers to take action. LeBron James – who is looking to play in his seventh consecutive NBA Finals – has never lost in the first round of the NBA playoffs in 11 appearances. A LeBron James team hasn’t even lost a first-round game since 2012 and he is 44-7 in first round games.
Cleveland’s late-season woes cost them the top seed in the Eastern Conference. That spot will be taken by the Boston Celtics who were the class of the Atlantic Division with a 53-29 mark. The Celtics, posted at 17/1 to win the championship, were led by the conference’s top scorer in Isaiah Thomas. No Celtic other than Larry Bird ever scored more points in a season than Thomas with a 29.1 average. Since coming over from Phoenix in 2015, Thomas has spurred to Celtics back to NBA prominence but dislodging the Cavaliers is still a big ask. Boston cannot even look past a tough first round opponent in the Chicago Bulls who boast veterans Dwayne Wade, ex-Celtic guard Rajon Rondo, and high-scoring Jimmy Butler. The two teams split their four regular season contests.
The third-seeded Toronto Raptors are another Eastern Conference team that will be consumed with a first-round match-up before setting sights on Cleveland. Toronto has not made it past LeBron James this decade but this year another potential Raptor-killer lurks in the form of Giannis Antetokounmpo of the upstart Milwaukee Bucks. The young Bucks won more games than any NBA team in March and the Greek Freak completed the first season in NBA history for a player to be ranked in the top 20 in points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals.
Speaking of historic seasons, the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder first-round match-up features a clash between James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the league’s top two MVP candidates. Westbrook became the first player since Oscar Robertson a half century ago to average a triple double for an entire season – 31.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists. Harden was not far behind with 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 11.2 assists. Harden has a stronger supporting cast with the Houston Rockets, who set an NBA record for three-pointers made in a season, but the Thunder are 33-9 when Westbrook racks up one of his triple doubles. It is sure to be an entertaining undercard while teams clear the way for the main event everyone is waiting for at the end of the NBA playoffs – the Cavaliers and the Warriors.