NBA Playoffs 2018: Updated Championship Odds and Conference Finals Preview

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistMay 14, 2018

Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) and forward Jayson Tatum cheer from the bench along with injured Gordon Haywood who watches in street clothes, far right, during the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Sunday, May 13, 2018, in Boston. The Celtics won 108-83. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

The four teams left in the 2018 NBA playoffs face different challenges in the conference finals to advance to the NBA finals. 

Cleveland and Boston will be involved in a strategical series, with Celtics head coach Brad Stevens looking to get the best out of his roster while trying to stop LeBron James

Out in the Western Conference, the long-awaited matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets could come down to which team knocks down the most three-pointers. 

With two titles in the last three years, the Warriors enter the third round of the postseason as the favorites to win a championship once again, but each of the other three teams involved can claim it's capable of winning it all as well.

        

Updated Championship Odds (via OddsShark

Golden State Warriors (-140; bet $140 to win $100) 

Houston Rockets (+250; bet $100 to win $250) 

Cleveland Cavaliers (+500) 

Boston Celtics (+2000) 

    

Boston Needs To Keep Up Momentum Earned From Game 1 Win 

The Cavaliers barely tested the Celtics in Sunday's Game 1, as Boston knocked off LeBron James and Co. 108-83. 

Now the challenge for Brad Stevens' team is to find a way to keep the pressure on Cleveland, who will make the necessary adjustments for Game 2. 

One of the keys for the Celtics was the play of forward Marcus Morris, who helped shut down James and produced 21 points.

Morris' stat line stood out compared to the one James produced, as ESPN's Chris Forsberg showed us: 

Even though Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and Morris scored over 20 points, and James was limited to 15 points while making five of his 16 field-goal attempts, Stevens believes his team can get better, per the Celtics' official Twitter account: 

Part of that improvement needs to come from Terry Rozier, who was fairly quiet with eight points after a pair of dynamic series against Milwaukee and Philadelphia.

If Rozier works his way into double digits to combine with Brown and Jayson Tatum as primary scorers, Horford and Morris should be able to find more open looks in the paint. 

From Cleveland's perspective, the double-digit point outings from Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson were positive developments, but that was the extent of the takeaways from Game 1 that favored its play. 

The Cavaliers had a horrendous shooting day, as they made 36 percent of their shots from the field and 15.6 percent of their three-pointers. Head coach Tyronn Lue knows those numbers must be better, per Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com

"We didn't play well. We understand that," Lue said. "We know we have to be better."

The onus is on James as the leader of the Cavs to improve, but he also needs help from his supporting cast, as J.R. Smith, George Hill and Kyle Korver combined for 14 points. 

If James figures out Morris' defensive game plan, and players like Smith and Korver knock down a few key shots early to get into a rhythm, Game 2 should be much more competitive than Game 1. 

       

Golden State, Houston Square Off In Long-Awaited Showdown 

Since before the regular season began, the hype was building around the potential of a Warriors-Rockets showdown in the Western Conference final. 

After facing little trouble in the opening rounds of the postseason, the defending champion and its biggest challenger to the NBA throne face off in a seven-game series that begins Monday at Toyota Center. 

Houston won two of the three regular-season meetings between the Western Conference powers, with each of the contests featuring over 200 points.

James Harden outdueled the stars on the Warriors roster in the first meeting October 17, as he dropped 27 points, while Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant recorded 22 and 20 points, respectively.

In the early-season contest, the Warriors knocked down 16 of their 30 three-point attempts, but they fell one point short of the victory. 

Klay Thompson featured in a starring role in the second clash January 4, as he knocked down  six of his nine attempts from beyond the arc in a 124-114 win. 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Harden didn't play in the matchup at the start of the new year, but the Rockets remained in touch behind 30 points from Eric Gordon and 28 points out of Chris Paul

The last showdown between the West rivals took place January 20, when Paul and Harden combined for 55 points in a 116-108 victory. 

Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

Given the style of play of both teams, we should expect to see a barrage of three-point attempts from every superstar who sets foot on the hardwood. 

Although the focus is understandably going to be on the three-point line, the play in the paint on both ends could be a deciding factor in the series. 

For Golden State, Draymond Green and JaVale McGee will be key in order to clog Houston's dribble penetration if the three-point shot isn't working. 

Green enters the Western Conference final averaging 13.1 points, 11.5 rebounds, nine assists, 1.9 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. 

Even if Harden and Paul put in the best collection of playoff performances in their respective careers, the Rockets still need an X-factor to push them past the Warriors. 

Look for Trevor Ariza, who is the only player on the Rockets roster with a championship ring, to emerge as a go-to player in the frontcourt alongside Clint Capela, who is averaging a double-double in the postseason. 

The Warriors have the edge in experience, and until the Rockets prove they can get past them in the postseason, Steve Kerr's team deserves to be favored, but Houston presents the biggest test to ending their run before the NBA finals in quite some time. 

      

Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.

Statistics obtained from NBA.com and Basketball Reference

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