Submitted by Jim Hurley on Wednesday, May 11, 2016 at 2:32 PM
The Cleveland Cavaliers are playing their best basketball of the season at the right time. They're peaking on both sides of the floor and they've swept through the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs with an 8-0 record. But has that translated into pointspread success?
The answer is "yes but". The Cavs are 5-3 ATS in their games against the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks, but one of those covers was very tight. The oddsmakers have shown a reasonably good read on Cleveland to this point and handicappers will have to work to find the edges necessary to cash in on the conference finals and likely the NBA Finals.
Cleveland opened their first-round series against Detroit with an ATS loss, winning 106-101 as an (-11) favorite. They closed the series with another non-cover win, this one 100-98 as a (-6 ½) point favorite. Their closing win over Atlanta on Sunday was another ATS loser, a 100-99 escape as a (-5 ½) point fave. They started the series with a 104-93 win that covered the (-8) spread.
It's worth noting though that had the spread stayed the same as the Detroit series, that Game 1 win over Atlanta would have been a push. Now the Hawks were a better team during the regular season than the Pistons, so the different spread is not surprising, but the oddsmakers have begun adjusting for the Cavs' obvious improved play.
The fact that both series have run on a similar rhythm - soft showings by the Cavs at the beginning and the end sandwiched between strong outings in the middle games, takes on more of a pattern when you dig deeper into the games they exceeded oddsmaker expectations.
In particular, Cleveland dominated Game 3 in both series. Against Detroit, they had a 46-32 rebounding advantage. Against Atlanta the edge on the boards was a resounding 55-28. Rebounding is something that is heavily correlated to intensity and the mindset of the Cavs was clearly not to let an opponent that was down get up off the mat.
Contrast that with the Cavs' defensive play in the non-cover games. The opponents in those games shot between 48-50 percent from the floor. Defense is another area, particularly for the more talented team, where success and failure is often directly traceable to intensity.
It's reasonable to conclude the Cavs may have taken both the Pistons and Hawks a little lightly at the start and in both games they had to fight to escape with the outright win, while their Vegas backers absorbed an ATS defeat. And after going up 3-0 in each series there was a natural letdown on the road in Game 4 before at least playing well enough to close the sweep.
Defense and rebounding aren't the only key indicators. The classic explanation of hot shooting has certainly played a role. Cleveland, especially J.R. Smith, have been lights-out from three-point range in the games they have covered.
Whether the three-point shooting is something that's tied to rebounding is being reviewed on tape right now by my staff - I want to know if offensive rebounds are creating open looks on kickbacks or strong defensive rebounding is keying an open three in transition. But in either case, the pattern of Cleveland showing intensity in identifiable spots is important to know going into the Eastern Conference Finals.
That's because the basic dynamic is not going to change - the Cavs are going to be a heavy favorite, whether they play the Miami Heat or the Toronto Raptors. Right now Cleveland is (-800) to win that series and reach the NBA Finals. Will there be another Game 1 where they're a little sluggish out of the gate, followed by dominating middle games and then a tight close-out affair?
In handicapping it's important to understand two things - just because something happened yesterday doesn't mean it will happen today or tomorrow. And also, when a trend starts, there's usually a reason. Finding the balance between these two contradictory notions is the key to making money and it's the key to handicapping the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.