The Cleveland Cavaliers got on the board in the 2018 postseason on Wednesday night, scoring a 100-97 win over the Indiana Pacers behind the relentlessness of LeBron James. The nature of Cleveland’s victory, though — needing 46 points in 40 minutes from James and still needing to get, in LeBron’s words, “lucky” when Victor Oladipo missed a wide-open 3-pointer in the final minute — left an awful lot of observers feeling sub-sanguine when it comes to the Cavs’ chances of rolling through the East to a fourth straight NBA Finals.
Those observers, evidently, include the bookmakers at betting site Bovada. In the updated NBA playoff odds the site released on Thursday morning, the Cavs are no longer the Eastern Conference team with the best odds to win the 2017-18 NBA championship, or to advance to the 2018 NBA Finals.
Before the postseason started last Saturday, Bovada had the Cavs at 13/2 to win the NBA title, in third place behind the Golden State Warriors (7/5) and Houston Rockets (8/5), and ahead of the East’s No. 1 seed, the Toronto Raptors (17/2). The site also pegged the Cavs as a 5/4 favorite to advance out of the East, with Toronto trailing behind at 8/5.
As we near the end of the playoffs’ opening week, though, those odds have shifted. While the Warriors (21/20) and Rockets (8/5) remain the favorites to hoist the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy in June, the Raptors — winners of their first two playoff games for the first time in franchise history — have moved ahead of Cleveland, if only slightly. Bovada flipped the make-it-out-of-the-East odds, with Toronto now at 5/4 and Cleveland at 8/5. And while the Raptors’ odds to win it all haven’t improved, holding steady at 17/2, the Cavs’ have dropped to 9/1 to win it all. (The Philadelphia 76ers continue to sit third in the odds, at 13/4 to win the East and 14/1 to win the title.)
On one hand, a shift in betting lines doesn’t necessarily mean anything between the lines. As good as the Raptors have looked in taking care of business against the eighth-seeded Washington Wizards, questions about whether they’re really capable of beating a LeBron-led team four times in seven games will persist until they actually do it. And as shaky as the Cavs on the whole have looked in their two outings against the Pacers, they do still have the sport’s single most unstoppable offensive weapon, which tends to matter quite a bit in the postseason.
Still, it feels notable that oddsmakers’ view of the Cavs’ postseason viability has shifted enough to drop them beneath Toronto, even slightly. According to a Bovada spokesperson, this isn’t just the first time the Cavs haven’t been the East’s betting favorite since LeBron returned to Cleveland in the summer of 2014. It’s the first time that any LeBron-led team has not been viewed as the favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals since the 2009-10 postseason.
That’s when James’ Cavs lost to the Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen-era Boston Celtics in six games in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals. Less than two months later, he took his talents to South Beach to join the Miami Heat, setting off a remarkable seven-year stretch in which he’s been the central figure in the NBA’s championship round.
When you watch how James continues to perform at historically insane levels, even at age 33 and in his 15th professional season, it can feel at times like there’s no end in sight for that run. This is inarguably the most limited overall team he’s had since his first stint in Cleveland, though, and this year’s Raptors are deeper, more talented and better than the models he’s dispatched in each of the past two postseasons … all of which has at least raised more doubt than there’s been about the top of the East’s mountain in a long, long time.
“So, the Raptors win Game 1 … and the Cavaliers get just shellacked at home in Game 1,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe told me Tuesday during an episode of his “The Lowe Post” podcast. “About 12 hours after that, all of ESPN’s NBA staff, talent, whatever, got a mass email saying, ‘Make sure your passports haven’t expired, just in case Toronto makes the Finals.’ Man, we never got that email before. We didn’t get that email last year. We didn’t get that email two years ago. People are starting to believe in the Raptors.”
And, just maybe, experiencing a waning belief in the Cavs come spring for the first time in nearly a decade.
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