2nd Seed Cleveland’s saving grace?
By Chris DeClou
With the NBA season coming to an end, both the Eastern and Western Conference matchups are set. The Chicago Bulls defeated the Brooklyn Nets handily while sealing the Miami Heat’s fate in the process. Behind Paul George’s hot hand, the Indiana Pacers took care of business against the Atlanta Hawks tonight, riding a five-game winning streak as the 7th seed. Finally, with the confident Boston Celtics winning against the Milwaukee Bucks, they secured the number one seed in the East and home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. This leaves the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers 2nd in the East losing their last four games in a row.
The series are as listed:
(1) Boston Celtics vs. (8) Chicago Bulls
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Indiana Pacers
(3) Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks
(4) Washington Wizards vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks
Many still believe that the Cavaliers will return to the NBA Finals to defend their title, presumably against the Golden State Warriors. However, the road to Cleveland’s third straight Finals appearance and LeBron James’ seventh straight appearance will not be as easy as years past.
(Photo was taken by Wilfredo Lee of the Associated press)
Cleveland has been struggling now for the last half of the season, beginning at the turn of the new year. Over their last 46 games, the Cavaliers are playing exactly .500 basketball. Since the all-star break, they have the 2nd worst defensive efficiency rating in the league behind the tanking Los Angeles Lakers (per ESPN). For the season, the Cavaliers defensive rating ranks 22nd in the entire league, which is the lowest among any playoff team (NBA.com).
Normally, home court advantage would be a plus for any team, however, Cleveland securing the 2nd seed instead of the 1st seed presents them with the easiest road to the Finals. The Cavaliers have beaten the Indiana Pacers three out of four times this season, as well as the Toronto Raptors, as compared to being swept by the 8th-seeded Chicago Bulls, losing the season series to the 5th-seeded Atlanta Hawks 1-3, and narrowly winning the season series with the 4th-seeded Washington Wizards 2-1 (thanks to a game-saving 3-point bank shot by LeBron James).
Now no team in recent memory, let alone the defending NBA champions, have struggled over the course of half a season the way the Cleveland Cavaliers have. Yet some believe that they can flip the proverbial switch once the playoff lights come on and the first jump ball is tipped off.
However, while this road to the finals may be easier, it certainly won’t be the cakewalk that it has been in years past. Paul George and the Indiana Pacers are riding a five-game win streak heading into the playoffs, and this season, Paul George is averaging close to 30 PPG against teams that are .500 or better (per ESPN). This includes the 43 point, 9 rebound, and 9 assist barrage he dropped on Cleveland. Not to mention, PG-13 has been trying to surpass LeBron James in the playoffs for almost five years now. The way George is playing, the emergence of sophomore standout Myles Turner, and the return of Lance “Born Ready” Stephenson, Cleveland may still have their hands full in the first round.
Should the Cavs get past the Pacers, the Raptors or the Bucks will be waiting for them in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Cleveland has had success against the Raptors, stemming back to last year’s Conference Finals playoff series where they won 4-2. Yet the Raptors feel like they can compete with anybody. In the two games the Raptors won in the playoffs last season, they won handily both times.
This season, Cleveland managed to get the better of them, although Lowry missed one game due to injury. The other two victories came down to execution down the stretch. With the season series ending tonight, both teams rested their stars and the Raptors won with relative ease, with players like Norman Powell stepping up. The edition of Serge Ibaka from the Orlando Magic should only strengthen their chances of competing with Cleveland’s small-ball lineup, moving Serge to the C and DeMarre Carroll to the PF position.
Should everything go right and Cleveland finds themselves against Boston, the hard part will have theoretically been over. The Cavs have too much size in their front court, dominating the boards against Boston, who kindly took out the Bulls and Wizards/Hawks. However, the Celtics are extremely well coached by Brad Stevens, a front-runner for Coach of the Year. Isaiah Thomas is playing at an MVP-caliber level, the defensive tandem of Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart, Al Horford’s proven leadership, and Jae Crowder’s timely three pointers, this will more than likely take everything Cleveland has to offer. Home court advantage will be huge for Boston, but LeBron does not have to do too much worrying. Per Fox Sports, LeBron James has won at least one playoff road game in his last 25 series. Not since the 2007 Finals has LeBron not won a road playoff game.
This year, the Cavaliers have their work cut out for them. Their defense is atrocious, they rely too heavily on LeBron James, and they shoot way too many three pointers while giving up too many in the process, yet the Cavaliers may have the rest of the Eastern Conference right where they want them. This will be a sight to behold as the playoffs unwind.