David Richard-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: LeBron James
- The Cleveland Cavaliers visit the Boston Celtics for Game 7, with the winner getting a trip to the NBA Finals. It would be eight straight Finals trips for LeBron James.
- Kevin Love has been ruled out with a concussion, which will put even more of a burden on LeBron, along with starters George Hill and J.R. Smith, to knock down shots.
- Both teams have been bad on the road, but Game 7s are different animals. Home teams in the Bet Labs database that are less than 5-point favorites in Game 7 are 6-9 against the spread.
The thing is, they almost survived it.
The Boston Celtics held a five-point lead after the first quarter of Game 6. They had come out with energy, shot 61%, and it looked like, finally, a road team was going to execute in this series.
Cleveland outscored Boston 89-74 the rest of the way, behind LeBron James’ insane 46-point, 11-rebound, nine-assist performance. It was one for the ages, a game few will forget, and if it was LeBron’s last game with the Cavaliers, it was the kind of performance the crowd deserved.
OTHER CAVS-CELTICS GAME 7 COVERAGE
So now a Game 7 awaits Sunday, with the Eastern Conference title and a spot in the Finals on the line. Here are all the angles to get you set.
THE HILL TO LIVE ON
Boston might have actually still won, were it not for George Hill’s 20 points and Jeff Green’s 14, nine of which were created off LeBron assists. The formula remains in place. If you make LeBron beat you with scoring and take away almost everything else, you can beat this Cavs team. However, if you let any of the other limited Cavs go off, trouble ensues.
The biggest stat outside of James’ awe-inspiring stat line? Hill had 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting, all of it unassisted. None of James’ nine assists went to Hill. He got those buckets on his own.
He scored on Aron Baynes twice when Baynes dropped in the pick-and-roll on switches:
Hill attacked two of Boston’s strongest defenders, Baynes and Al Horford, and did so effectively. He goes at Horford once here, and Horford plus help deter him … and then Hill goes right back at him.
Those kinds of plays are huge. Hill scored those points by creating without LeBron, allowing him to rest, and breaking the stronger parts of the Celtics’ defense.
Here, the Celtics have Terry Rozier on Hill (and Lord knows I’m tired of talking about the switch in these conference finals). When Tristan Thompson comes up, Marcus Smart, awesome defender, switches onto Hill. Now, however, the smaller player, Rozier, is on Thompson. Hill uses the attention the Celtics pay to Thompson in the post (for some reason) to get around for a bucket. But he also showed he can beat Smart off the dribble outright.
If Cleveland is going to get to the Finals again, it needs this kind of performance from Hill. After the game, Hill said he’s eaten at Chipotle at home in Cleveland in all three Cavs wins. He intends on finding one before Game 7 in Boston. If he manages to get a burrito, maybe the 2.5-point line should go down to 1.5. (Kidding … or am I?)
ALL OUT OF LOVE
Kevin Love’s concussion has ruled him out of Game 7. It’s unfortunate for the Cavaliers, but given how this season has gone for them, of course this is how it goes. Murphy’s Law: The 2018 Cavaliers.
Here’s something interesting, though. At home in this series, the Cavs’ offense was actually worse with Love on the floor, by 12.3 points per 100 possessions. The defense, of all things, was better with Love on the floor, by a whopping 13.6 points/100.
Now, on the road? The offense was -0.8 points per 100 possessions worse with Love on the floor (basically the same), and the defense was 18 points/100 better with Love on the bench.
So if you’re going into Boston, and the idea is “the Cavaliers need to stagnate the Celtics’ weak point (their offense) and count on having more firepower,” then Love’s absence does actually provide an addition-by-subtraction problem. The Cavs’ offense has been terrible with Love on the floor in Boston, and while his individual scoring ability matters, they still have shooters in Hill, Larry Nance and whatever Green gives you (good or bad).
So Love’s absence is bad, but it’s not Chris Paul for the Rockets bad.
WHY YOU SHOULD STAY AWAY FROM THE LINE
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Stay the hell away from this. You’ve got a home team in a Game 7, and those teams have historically been dominant straight-up. But the Celtics are without their two best players facing LeBron James. Home teams in the Bet Labs database that are less than 5-point favorites in Game 7s are 6-9 against the spread.
The Celtics have been stellar at home. The Cavaliers have been terrible on the road. But the Celtics have to close out LeBron at home in a game with his eighth straight Finals appearance on the line. Much of Cleveland’s struggles in Boston have been self-inflicted. The Celtics’ defense is great, but Cleveland has also just refused to do things such as “run offense” and “move off the ball.” If those things engage, what happens?
And yet, this Cavs team is truly bad most of the time. The phrase “Cleveland needed 14 points from Jeff Green in Game 6” should be a starting point for your caution. The Cavaliers are like drunk toddlers at the helm of a fully operational weapons arsenal. They might fall off the chair; they might blow everything up by accident.
Meanwhile, Boston is held together with duct tape. Horford has been terrific at home, but you need someone to go out and drop 20-plus in this game to take down James. Can Horford? Can Jayson Tatum? Tatum has stepped up in every moment he’s needed to, but for a rookie to carry a team past James to the Finals?
Game 7s usually come down to who shoots better. All the adjustments have been made; both teams are exhausted. Both teams are so used to playing the other side that they have all their movements predicted going in. It just comes down to who makes shots. Home teams usually make more shots. Cleveland is the better offensive team.
Boston, logically, is the better team here. The Celtics have been better all season, they’ve been better in the playoffs, they’re at home, and their performance there has been reliable across three series.
Betting on LeBron, logically, is the sound approach here. He doesn’t lose these kinds of games. And yet, as an underdog in the playoffs vs. the Eastern Conference since he returned to Cleveland, James is 5-5 SU.
Neither of these teams has earned your trust. Neither of these teams has proven reliable in any capacity except the Celtics at home, and that fact is trumped by the singularly incredible player they are facing.
Avoid this like the game is a hazmat zone.
I know: Scared money don’t make money. That’s true. But scared money doesn’t think back and realize it either 1) bet against LeBron, 2) trusted the Cavaliers, 3) trusted the Celtics without two of their best players, or 4) trusted the Cavs without Love.
THE CASE FOR UNDER 199.5
The over finally hit in Game 6. The Cavs’ offense got going, and their defense was vulnerable enough that Boston got its scoring as well. However, these Game 7s are tight. Super tight. Bear in mind, the only players with experience in games with these kinds of stakes are James, J.R. Smith, Thompson, Kyle Korver and Horford. Everyone else is in totally new territory.
The under in Game 7s with a total below 200 has gone 20-13. This game might be ugly, and while that might favor Boston’s style of play, it also indicates the under is stylistically closer to expectations.
For what it’s worth: Since LeBron returned to Cleveland, the under has gone 20-16-1 with the Cavs on the road in the postseason, including 5-3 in these playoffs.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
It takes a lot to make LeBron getting past a Celtics team without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward into an impressive feat. But somehow, this Cavs team is flawed enough to do it. James can return to his eighth straight Finals, and while the Cavs have very little chance of beating either of the West teams, if the Rockets can somehow find a way to get past the Warriors without Paul, the door will be open.
There’s a chance James could really win his fourth title with this dreck of a Cavs team. It’ll take a lot to go their way, but that’s the beauty of having a player of his caliber.
Meanwhile, Boston is already in the gravy boat. If the Celtics make the Finals, it’s an incredible season, and they beat LeBron James on their way. Given that the Celtics have been doubted and picked against in every series since the first round, and given that they will either play the Rockets — hampered with a short rotation — or the Warriors, who have struggled this series with a team that has long defenders who can switch 1-5, who knows?
It feels like whoever wins this series is playing for runner-up. And yet, we doubted if this Cavs team could get to this point and were certain this Celtics team could not. Both teams have outperformed expectations, by hook or by crook.
Who knows where the run ends?