-- After a full week of waiting, the NBA Finals that everyone wanted to see has arrived, with the Golden State Warriors taking on the Cleveland Cavaliers (aka the Cleveland LeBrons). This season's No. 1 team against the top player on the planet.
As we pointed out in the NBA conference finals betting guide, form has pretty much held during the postseason, with favorites advancing in 12 of 14 series, including sweeps of the past two rounds. The Warriors were minus-1000 favorites over the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference finals, while the Cavaliers were minus-215 over the Atlanta Hawks despite not having home-court advantage (and they showed they didn't need it, winning both games in Atlanta on the way to a sweep).
But as we also pointed out two weeks ago, while favorites continue to win series after series, underdogs have been successful on a game-to-game basis. That continued in the conference finals as underdogs incredibly covered the first seven games (note: Cleveland was a road underdog in Games 1 and 2 at Atlanta, and Golden State was a road 'dog at Houston in Game 3) before the Cavs and Warriors both covered as favorites in their series clinchers. Still, underdogs were 7-2 ATS in the conference finals and are 41-33-1 (55.4 percent) ATS overall in the playoffs. Unders are also 41-33-1 (55.4 percent) after going 6-3 in the conference finals.
Let's take a look at where the betting value lies in this marquee matchup, along with my ESPN Chalk colleague Erin Rynning, as we land on opposite sides in this series.
Note: Odds courtesy of the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors
Series price: Warriors minus-220/Cavaliers plus-190
Game 1 lines: Warriors minus-6; over/under 202.5
Dave Tuley: Yes, I hear all the talk about how the Warriors' stats put them among the all-time great NBA teams, and I continue to be impressed by them. In most sports, I'll go with the "team" over the "star player," but that's not the case when it comes to the NBA. This is the sport that can be most dominated by a single player, and while Stephen Curry is a superstar in his own right, I have to look to LeBron James as the pivotal player in this series and the one most likely to take control and carry his team to victory.
When going over the matchup this past week, I keep going back to their regular-season meetings. Yes, they split, with each team winning at home, but James (and Iman Shumpert, another key defender) did not play in the Warriors' 112-94 win Jan. 9. That was in the midst of the Cavaliers' six-game losing streak in which James played only one game. When they met again on Feb. 26 in Cleveland, the whole world was watching as James was back in the lineup against the newly anointed No. 1 team, and all he did was score 42 points to lead the Cavs to a convincing 110-99 victory. In fact, amid all the talk of how the Warriors have been more consistent during the course of the season, since Jan. 13 (when it's considered that James had recovered from his multiple injuries), the Warriors are 38-10 while the Cavaliers are 34-10, so the gap isn't that big.
So that's why I see value in Cleveland, though some has been taken away the past week after it opened in the plus-230 range. Still, those six points in Game 1 look too good to pass up and I'll likely be on the Cavaliers getting similar points on the road throughout the series. Most people know that the Cavaliers are 12-2 SU in the playoffs while the Warriors are 12-3 SU, but the Cavs are 8-6 ATS while the Warriors are 7-8 ATS. It gets even better for the Cavaliers on the road, as they're 6-1 SU and 5-2 ATS while the Warriors are 7-1 SU but just 3-5 ATS. The Warriors haven't been as dominant on their home court as most people assume.
As for over/unders, that's where I've made most of my money during the playoffs, especially with these two teams. In the NBA playoff betting guide we put out before the postseason started, I wrote about how bettors love to bet the overs in both of these teams' games and that the oddsmakers jack up their totals. The unders are 12-3 (80 percent) in the Warriors' playoffs games, including an incredible 8-0 at home. The Cavaliers are 8-5-1 (61.5 percent) with the under but are also undefeated at 6-0-1 in road games.
ESPN Chalk picks: Cleveland plus-6 in Game 1 and likely taking it in Game 2 unless the line is below plus-5. I'll also start with the unders in both games at Golden State and see how those games go and how the market reacts.
Erin Rynning: The 2015 NBA Finals feature a similar feel to last year's edition, as we have the best team in the NBA with the Warriors matched up with the best player in LeBron James. Curry won this season's MVP award, but make no mistake -- James is still a cut above every player in the league. The best team (the San Antonio Spurs) won last season, and I expect a similar outcome, with the Western Conference team winning the title.
Give the Cavaliers a ton of credit for overcoming their 19-20 start to the season. They've come together in a special way, but they just don't have the high upside they'll own in the upcoming years. In the playoffs, they beat a below-average NBA team in the Boston Celtics; a team that quit on its coach in the Chicago Bulls; and an Atlanta squad that totally disintegrated trying to reach the Finals. Again, the Cavaliers deserve praise, but the Warriors are a totally different animal.
Sure, one can dissect the Warriors in similar scheduling fashion, and they did avoid the next two best teams in the West in the Los Angeles Clippers and Spurs. However, Golden State has flexed its well-rounded muscles since October. The Warriors are extremely well-coached and have the flexibility and weaponry that are not available on the Cavaliers' roster. Elements of an improved defense linger for the Cavaliers; however, this was a unit that ranked 19th in the regular season. In addition, in their series against the Celtics, I was convinced this defensively flawed team simply couldn't win an NBA title. The Warriors' ball movement will wear down Cleveland defensively, and their nearly 40 percent 3-point shooting will play a deciding factor in the end.
As Tuley said, both teams have trended toward the under in the postseason. Note their regular-season game on Feb. 26 featured a total of 216.5 with a game that ended up having 209 points. The Cavaliers have dwindled to a super-slow pace as the playoffs have progressed; however, in Golden State, they'll most likely need to change gears as they haven't had to play from behind. In addition, a healthier Kyrie Irving should change the offensive dynamic for Cleveland as well.
ESPN Chalk picks : The Warriors are worth a series bet at minus-250 or less, while leaning to laying the points with the Warriors in the opener. I'll pass the Game 1 total.
Zigzagging through the NBA playoffs
To recap: As pointed out in the NBA playoff betting guide, the zigzag theory (aka the "loser of the last theory," in which you bet the team that lost the previous game straight up) is 311-249-10 ATS (55.5 percent) from 1991 through 2000, but then only 475-444-27 ATS (51.6 percent) from 2001 through last season. It did rebound a little last year at 40-33-1 ATS (54.8 percent). It's again right about .500, as it went 4-3 ATS in the conference finals and 31-29-1 (51.7 percent) in this year's playoffs.
But as I also pointed out, while it has cooled off overall, it has continued to be successful in Game 2s. This year, it went 4-4 ATS in the first round but 3-1 ATS in the second round before going 1-1 ATS in the conference finals to stand at 8-6 ATS (57.1 percent), with just the Game 2 of the NBA Finals to go.
It's interesting to note that the CG Technology and Stratosphere books here in Vegas have already posted a line for Game 2 and they've made Golden State a 5.5-point favorite. With the Game 1 line a solid 6, many will wonder why it's shaded in that direction, but anyone familiar with the zigzag theory understands why.
With the Warriors expected to win Game 1 straight up (the money line has come down a little but is still a consensus minus-240 around Las Vegas as of early Wednesday morning), the books are expecting the zigzag bettors to take the Cavaliers plus the points in Game 2, so they've shaded the line that way. We'll see how it all plays out.
Good luck in the playoffs, and happy handicapping.