All Even In The East

Do we really have a series on our hands in the NBA's Eastern Conference Finals? The Toronto Raptors didn't roll over and become the third straight victim of a Cleveland Cavaliers sweep. The Raptors stepped up, defended their home floor and we now have a series tied at two games apiece. With two of the remaining three games in Cleveland though, does Toronto have a real chance to pull a monumental upset? Let's look at how the Raptors were able to win Games 3 & 4 and assess how that will translate going forward.

The first thing that jumps out is that Toronto was able to win games that were both offense and defense-oriented. The 99-84 win in Game 3 was a relatively ugly affair. The Raptors only shot 44 percent, while the Cavs struggled to 35 percent. Game 4's 105-99 win was much more efficient on both sides, with Toronto sizzling at 54 percent while Cleveland shot 47 percent, a number usually good enough to win playoff games.

The second thing that jumps out is that the Raptors won even with LeBron James doing this thing. Over the two games, James scored 53 points, had 17 rebounds and handed out 11 assists. He shot a stellar 20-for-33 from the floor. Cleveland can reasonably expect their star to maybe rebound a bit more and get a few more assists going forward, but the shooting percentage will also decline.

Finally we came to the biggest thing which is the rebounding of Bismack Biyombo. The Raptors center has hauled down forty rebounds over two games. He was the key to a massive 54-40 edge in Game 3 when Toronto played like a desperate team and Cleveland played like a team with a cushion.

Biyombo's performance stands in sharp contrast to similar players on Cleveland. Notably, Tristan Thompson struggled, getting just 11 rebounds in two games. Thompson performs a similar function to Biyombo. He's not expected to score, just defend and hit the glass. Thompson is normally one of the NBA's outstanding offensive rebounders, but he fell silent in the middle games of this series.

And if Thompson was silent, Kevin Love was positively asleep. Love produced a double-double of 13 points/11 rebounds - which would be fine if it weren't the total for two games, not one. He was completely AWOL in Game 3 and mediocre in Game 4. Media critics have long said that Love is good for stats during the regular season, but that he won't deliver when you need him most. These games gave those critics considerable ammunition.

Now we come to the Toronto backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Both have been outstanding in these wins. DeRozan knocked down 32 points in both Games 3 & 4, and did it with efficiency, shooting 26-for-47 in the process. Lowry, an up-and-down player in the postseason, shot 21-for-33 combined and scored 20 points in Game 3 before exploding for 35 in the Game 4 win.

That's how it's happened. Now, can it sustain itself? There is much good news for Toronto. They've shown they can win even with LeBron playing at a high level. They've shown they can win both offensive and defensive-type games. There's no reason to think that Biyombo can't crash the boards.

But before you run out and bet Toronto to win the series, we have to consider that role players - like Thompson, and to a lesser extent Love, who has taken on a "role player" type of persona in this offense - are often the ones most likely to be affected by homecourt situations. They can be lifted by a home crowd and distracted by a hostile one, whereas stars like a LeBron have steeled themselves to be immune to the surroundings.

Furthermore, Lowry and DeRozan simply can't keep shooting this well. They're both good offensive players to be sure, but shooting in the 55-60 percent range against a playoff defense is just surreal.

There's still no shortage of value to be found on Toronto. They're be getting (+11) in Game 5 on Wednesday night in Cleveland. The moneyline is a lucrative (+650). Even if the Raptors lose that game, they'll likely be getting points for Friday's Game 6. The Raptors are showing that they can make bettors some money even if it's hard to imagine them winning the Eastern Conference Finals.

Jim Hurley and his Network of Handicappers and Bloggers have been bashing the books right from the start of this year’s NBA Playoffs and nothing’s gonna change here as we're into the Conference Championships. We’ll continue to rock-n-roll our way through the NBA post-season – and you can purchase Jim’s NBA Post Season program right here at or call 1-800-323-4453 each/every day and be sure that we’ll send you straight into the winner’s circle.

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We're proud of the fact that we recommended the Oklahoma City Thunder as a 12-1 bet to win the NBA championship prior to the beginning of the Western Conference Finals against Golden State. Those odds are now cut to 13-10 after Oklahoma City grabbed a 3-1 series lead with last night's 118-94 win.

But even the most fervent believer in OKC or the biggest skeptic 73-win Golden State couldn't have seen the thoroughness which the Thunder dominated Games 3 & 4 on their home floor. How could this have happened? And given that the series is far from over - the Warriors need simply defend their home floor and get one road win - can it continue?

Oklahoma City won these games in the second quarter. They rolled up a 38-19 advantage in the second quarter of Game 3 and then came out and ripped Golden State 42-27 in last night's second period. And those weren't even their best offensive quarters. The Thunder dropped 45 points in the third quarter of Game 3. And for sheer clutch performance, how about last night's fourth quarter? The Warriors had cut a 19-point lead down to 12. Oklahoma City put the defensive clamps on and held the league's best offense and two-time MVP Steph Curry to just twelve points in the final period to seal the deal.

If Golden State is going to stop the assault, they simply have to rebound the basketball. Oklahoma City has dominated the glass, winning the rebounding edge 52-38 in Game 3 and then 56-40 in Game 4. And the rebounding is a complete team effort. In Game 3, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka all had eight boards while Enes Kanter came on the bench to grab twelve. In Game 4, they were even better. Durant and Westbrook got 11 boards apiece, Andre Roberson had twelve, while Ibaka and Steve Adams had seven apiece.

Those litany of numbers are impressive, but there are two facts that are even more damning for Golden State. Adams, a big-time rebounder, only had five boards in Game 3 and his seven last night was pedestrian. He's more than capable of a 12-15 rebound night. The other fact is this - the diminutive Curry is outrebounding his own center, Andrew Bogut.

It's true Bogut gets role player minutes even though he's a nominal starter, but this is a chicken-or-the-egg question. Are his rebound numbers low because of his limited minutes, or are his minutes limited because of his rebounding? Clearly, if head coach Steve Kerr had confidence in Bogut, or backup Festus Ezeli, they would get more than 10-11 minutes a game.

So Golden State goes small, the way they won last year's NBA title and set a regular season wins record this year. This makes perfect sense - if you're going to lose, at least go down being true to your own identity. But the problems the Warriors are having are what critics - notably TNT analyst Charles Barkley - have been waiting for when it comes to teams that rely on the perimeter.

The Warriors aren't getting easy points right now. By relying on the three-point shot, they don't get to the free throw line like the Thunder. Over two games, Oklahoma City has shot 77 free throws to Golden State's 54. That's been translated into a scoring advantage of 64-38 or an edge of 13 points per game. Between this and the rebounding - meaning easier opportunities close to the basket - there's a lot of pressure on the Warriors to be lights-out from three-point range.

And they have not been. Golden State was 10-for-33 from behind the arc in Game 3 and 9-for-30 in Game 4. It would be no surprise to anyone if they light it up at home in Game 5 and extend the series. But is it realistic to expect any team, even the best three-point shooting team in the world, to just casually drill 45-50 percent of their treys for three straight games against conference final-caliber defense?

Golden State has to find ways to win that go beyond three-point shooting and it starts with better efficiency. Their biggest edge coming into this series was a significantly better assist-to-turnover ratio than Oklahoma City. That evaporated in the middle games of this series.

So to bring this full circle, is what OKC did in Games 3 & 4 sustainable. No, but it doesn't have to be. It's not reasonable to expect them to drop anywhere from 38-45 points per quarter and blow games open early. But they have a huge margin for error, having won those games by a stunning average of 26 points. It is reasonable to expect them to rebound aggressively and get to the free throw line more often than Golden State.

To counter, the Warriors have to move the ball more crisply, get more easy baskets off turnovers and from that, let better looks from three take care of themselves. The market still has relative belief in the Warriors - they're still 9-2 to win the championship while the Toronto Raptors - who are tied two games apiece with Cleveland in the East - are at 40-1. Golden State is still a (-7.5) favorite for Thursday's Game 5 back in Oakland. But they can't just hope for the threes to magically start falling.




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