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Cavaliers struggling, but still should advance to NBA Finals

Updated April 14, 2017 - 7:41 pm

The Cavaliers are limping into the playoffs, having lost their past four games in a 10-14 season-ending slide. The defending NBA champions surrendered the top seed in the Eastern Conference to the Celtics. They’re vulnerable.

They’re also favored to return to the NBA Finals for a rematch with the Warriors.

“I’m concerned with the Cavaliers defense and overall inability to execute the way they want to, but there is no way I’m picking anyone but LeBron (James) in the Eastern Conference,” ESPN SportsCenter anchor Doug Kezirian said. “The gap has become closer, but there’s still a gap.”

Cleveland, the minus-225 favorite to win the East, will host the Indiana Pacers in the opening game of the playoffs at noon Saturday, and Kezirian is siding with the Cavs in the first half as 5-point favorites.

“LeBron is going to come out like a man possessed,” said Kezirian, who also hosts ESPN’s “Behind the Bets” podcast. “I don’t think the Pacers have any chance in the first round, and I don’t think the Celtics have any chance against Cleveland.

“To me, the biggest threat is Washington. I think (guards Bradley) Beal and (John) Wall can take over a game if the stars are aligned.”

The Cavs are the 7-2 second choice to win the title behind Golden State, the minus-200 favorite. The Spurs are at 8-1, and then the odds jump to the Celtics and Rockets at 20-1, the Raptors and Clippers at 30-1, and the Wizards at 40-1.

The Westgate sports book has a prop pitting the Warriors (minus-200) versus the field (plus-175), and manager Jeff Sherman fully expects Golden State to cash as the heaviest favorite he can recall since the late 1990s Bulls title teams led by Michael Jordan.

“With a healthy (Kevin) Durant, I don’t see any team in the NBA beating them four times,” he said.

While the quest for the crown might be less a competition than a coronation, there’s always plenty of suspense in sweating out bets along the way.

The most appealing first-round matchup is between Oklahoma City and Houston and their leading MVP candidates — Russell Westbrook (31.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 10.4 apg) and James Harden (29.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 11.2 apg).

The Rockets are favored by 7½ points in Sunday night’s game, and the total of 228 is the highest of the eight series openers. Handicapper Doug Fitz (Systemplays.com) leans to the Thunder in Game 1, and so do I.

Houston went 0-8-1 against the spread in its final nine regular-season games and, as favorites of 7 points or more, is 3-11 ATS in its past 14 with four outright losses. The Rockets also are 18-23 ATS at home this season, and Westbrook and Oklahoma City’s defense should keep the game close.

“That number’s too high. Oklahoma City can definitely hang with them in this game,” Fitz said. “During the regular season, teams like Houston can get away with outscoring everybody. But defense is the key come playoff time.”

Fitz also leans to the Trail Blazers getting 14½ points from the Warriors on Sunday. Portland covered its past two meetings with Golden State, losing 113-111 and 125-117.

“I just think the number is way too high for a playoff game,” Fitz said. “All these first-round games, I think the numbers are way too high. It could be one of these situations where ’dogs go 5-3 or something like that.”

I’m leaning to the Bulls as an 8-point ’dog to the Celtics on Sunday. Boston tends to play to the level of its competition and doesn’t blow out many teams, going 7-14 ATS with five outright losses as favorites of 7 points or more this season.

Kezirian gives Chicago “a puncher’s chance” to win the series at plus-400.

“The only problem is they’re purely overmatched at the coaching position,” he said. “I realize what everyone sees in (Boston guard) Isaiah Thomas on the offensive end, but this is not the 1990s. We have analytics now, and he is the worst defender, statistically, in the entire NBA.”

Fitz and Sherman also think the Jazz have a solid shot to cash as plus-200 ’dogs in their series against the Clippers.

“Utah’s live there,” Sherman said. “That’s going to be a battle. I think that one goes seven games.”

Said Fitz: “The Jazz is one team to really look out for. They’ll go farther than most people think they will, primarily because of their defense. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jazz pull out the series.”

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354. Follow @tdewey33 on Twitter.

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