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Finally, time is near for Cavs-Warriors trilogy

Updated May 19, 2017 - 6:45 pm

Everybody wants Round 3.

OK, if you are in New England or south central Texas, you are the exception. But the rest of us are hoping and expecting that the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will meet again for the NBA championship.

I hate to discount the Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs so quickly, but I haven’t seen anything that indicates they can make the NBA Finals.

So how do we make a buck on Cleveland and Golden State when they are so short priced? The Warriors are 1-3 around Las Vegas to win their second title in three years. The Cavs are 11-5 to make it two in a row.

In the search for value, I am reluctant to go in on the Warriors to go 16-0. At South Point, the odds are 6-1 that they run the table and 1-9 that they don’t. No, I do not expect Golden State to get through the playoffs unscathed. Even if the Spurs cannot gather themselves in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference finals, I don’t see the Warriors sweeping the Cavaliers. Then again, I thought the Cavs might be rusty in Game 1 at Boston in the Eastern Conference finals. How did that work out?

Teams do bond when they go on the road. The Cavs probably found that there is not a diversity of distractions like there is at home. If you go back to 2001 when Philadelphia played Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, Allen Iverson and the Sixers went into Staples Center and stole Game 1. They did not win again.

That does not make the Celtics’ performance Wednesday night any less disappointing. They did not have a Kawhi Leonard type of injury to blame for how poorly they played on defense — and how badly they shot at the start of a game in their own building.

But I tend to give the Cavaliers credit for what they did. LeBron James was unstoppable, and Kevin Love had a career game. The Celtics clearly had not recovered mentally from their seven-game grind against the Wizards. They will have to change the way they defend James. You cannot stop him with one player. Double teams are a must.

On the other end of the floor, Al Horford and Kelly Olynyk did not show up offensively, and that hurt the Celtics. They need those two guys to help Isaiah Thomas, who played well and hard. Still, the path to the rim that was so available to James was not there for Thomas. Not with Tristan Thompson showing how good a defender he can be.

For all this talk about the Cavs being such a bad defensive team, when James comes after you in a close-out, you are in deep trouble. He can get there in a hurry, and the Celtics are going to find that out in this series.

As for the Spurs and Warriors, I certainly hope Leonard can play Saturday. Maybe that will allow San Antonio to steal a game at home. We would all like to see the Spurs be competitive in the short term and give the Warriors a challenge, but they have a bigger issue. Leonard is by far San Antonio’s best player, and that team will be rebuilding around him. That is why the Spurs have to be careful with Leonard now. Their future depends on him.

For now, the Spurs have two big puzzles to solve if they are to avoid being swept by Golden State. One is LaMarcus Aldridge. I thought he would be a better player and a better shooter than what he has shown in the first two games. I want to cut him some slack, though, because of the heart arrhythmia that he experienced two months ago. It may be behind him physically, but it has to have a longer-lasting mental impact.

But the bigger issue for San Antonio in this series is finding someone to step in for Tony Parker. The Spurs have had a harder time replacing him at the point than they have had replacing Leonard. Parker’s quadriceps injury has him out for the rest of the playoffs, and who knows if that will send him into retirement. Patty Mills seems to get lost when he is out there, and that is why coach Gregg Popovich sends 39-year-old Manu Ginobili to run the floor. I am a bit of a fan of rookie Dejounte Murray because he is so long, and he can help the Spurs defensively in a way Mills cannot, but his inexperience is a factor, too.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr is with his team in San Antonio. Despite his back trouble, he will be in the locker room as he was for each of the first two games at Golden State. He is more active than he was in the Utah series. It is clear he has concerns about the Spurs, and even though Mike Brown is on the bench, Kerr is pulling the strings behind the scenes.

One thing Kerr cannot do right now is make the Warriors’ bench any deeper. That was something that had to give so that they could make room for Kevin Durant and his salary last summer. With Andre Iguodala and Zaza Pachulia hurting, that bench is just not as good. Iguodala will be critical in the next series, because he will take LeBron.

I am still thinking ahead to the NBA Finals. That’s because no one in Las Vegas really thinks the Spurs can win the series even if Leonard returns. They would have to win four of fives games, and that’s not going to happen. It’s the same situation in the East, where we’re looking at a Cavaliers sweep.

So let’s look ahead to the biggest individual matchup — James vs. Draymond Green. That’s going to be a monster. Green lost his cool last year and was suspended for Game 5. That was when the Warriors’ 3-1 lead began to crumble.

So who wins? I will not take a position on the Finals just yet. I am not as convinced as the public has been that the Warriors are automatic against the Cavaliers.

Instead, I would be looking to see the spreads on the individual games. Oddsmakers have to be thinking about that right now. I would not think they can post a big number either way.

One way or another, there will be a lot to enjoy when the Cavs finally meet the Warriors — and end the 11 1/2-month wait for them to meet for the third time.

The Preakness

It is hard for me to handicap the Preakness Stakes, because I am really pulling for Always Dreaming to have a chance at the Triple Crown.

I liked Classic Empire coming into the Kentucky Derby, and after he still managed to finish fourth despite all the traffic he faced, I give him a shot to win on Saturday. But his jockey, Julien Leparoux, has an enormous distraction now.

Leparoux’s name was the latest to show up in a federal fraud investigation. The Justice Department said he and at least three other athletes were fleeced by a financial manager who used to be on John Calipari’s Kentucky basketball staff.

Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports reported Thursday that an indictment against Leon Smith accused him of stealing money from Leparoux nearly five years ago and forging his signature on two tax-refund checks from the IRS. Smith pleaded not guilty in a court appearance Monday to charges that he defrauded the four athletes in question out of $1.3 million.

Leparoux dodged a question about the story Thursday, but now that his name is out there this will not go away soon – certainly not before Saturday’s race.

Either way – at 4-to-5 on Always Dreaming or 3-to-1 on Classic Empire – there is not a lot of money to be made putting a win bet on either horse. One of my guys in the desert – Ron Flatter – tells me that one way to make money on the Preakness is with a rolling double or a pick-3 using a ticket that includes both of the Preakness favorites.

Betting this race aside, how much does a live Triple Crown chance going into the Belmont really mean? About $37 million. That is how much the handle dropped last year on Belmont day from what it was in 2015, when American Pharoah completed his Triple Crown.

We will have so much more interest in horse-racing talk if Always Dreaming wins the Preakness and gives the Belmont Stakes more importance. For those of us who love the sport, that is what we hope for. Trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez are the richest earners ever in their crafts, they are very close, and they are as good as it gets. If they can put together a Triple Crown bid, it will be worth every cent that we bet – both for and against them.

Veteran sports broadcaster Brent Musburger writes a weekly column for his Vegas Stats and Information Network, which simulcasts his show Monday through Friday from 3 to 5 p.m. Follow @BrentMusburger on Twitter.

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