This isn’t last year’s Toronto Raptors, and it isn’t last year’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Toronto’s a slam-dunk NBA pick for Monday’s Game 1. Will they win? That’s another story.
You don’t have to be a basketball savant to know which side belongs in your NBA picks. The Toronto Raptors visit the Cleveland Cavaliers Monday night (7:00 p.m. ET, TNT) for Game 1 of their second-round series in the Eastern Conference, and the Raptors are getting up to seven points on the NBA odds board as we go to press. That is way too many points. FiveThirtyEight has an Elo-based projection of Cleveland –2.5 for this matchup.
Let’s give the betting market some credit: The Cavs were 11-point home faves when they hosted Toronto in Game 1 of last year’s Eastern Conference finals, so there’s been at least some recognition of the narrowed talent gap between these two teams. But the advanced stats are taking it further; they say the Raptors are now the better of the two. FiveThirtyEight even has Toronto advancing to the next round 54 percent of the time, despite the Cavs holding home-court advantage. So there.
How about a second source for journalism’s sake? Basketball Reference gave the Raptors (51-31 SU, 45-36-1 ATS) a plus-3.65 on the Simple Rating System for the regular season, and plus-2.87 SRS for the Cavs (51-31 SU, 36-43-3 ATS). That’s almost a full point better per game for Toronto on neutral ground. It’s only stats, and there’s a lot they don’t tell us – especially about how well teams “dial it up” for the playoffs. But they’re good enough to establish a baseline of expectations for this series.
As you can tell by those ATS numbers, Cleveland hasn’t been meeting the market’s inflated expectations this year. Injuries have played a large role, but so has the slow and subtle decline of LeBron James (+8.4 BPM), and the virtual disappearance of both Kyrie Irving (–2.3 DBPM) and Kevin Love (–0.9 DBPM) on defense. James is aging well thus far; Irving and Love have been battered and bruised to the point where the offense is pretty much all they have left to offer.
Not so with the Raptors. They juiced up their defense at the trade deadline with Serge Ibaka (–0.5 DBPM) and P.J. Tucker (+1.9 DBPM), and while Ibaka’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus for the regular season doesn’t look so hot, he only got to work with Toronto’s full lineup for the last few games. Ibaka emerged as their new starting center in the first round against the Milwaukee Bucks, with Jonas Valanciunas (–0.1 DBPM) coming off the bench; the Raps won three straight SU and ATS after making the switch to put Milwaukee away in six. Defense wins championships.