First thing's first: The Cavaliers have been struggling. Over their last 42 games, Cleveland is 23-19, which doesn't exactly strike fear into the hearts of opponents. They've been bad on defense, have played poorly against the league's best teams, and have the 30th ranked transition defense in the NBA, per Synergy Sports.
But not all is lost. The Cavaliers, as is often remarked, have LeBron James. LeBron James doesn't lose easily, therefore the Cavaliers are still heavy favorites to make the NBA Finals. Wednesday's slugfest of Boston also helped ease hearts and minds in Cleveland. However, it sure seems like the path to the Finals will not be as easy as in years past.
After the win at Boston, the Cavaliers overtook first place in the East again, meaning they'll have the (theoretically) weakest team in their sights come playoff time. The reality of who's the weakest team is not crystal clear.
Here's a look at the potential first-round opponents for the Cavaliers.
For some reason, the Bulls always play the Cavs well. In the 2015 playoffs, for example, the Bulls were one LeBron James buzzer-beater from taking a 3-1 series lead in the second round. The Cavaliers took that game and then the next six, sweeping their way into the Finals against Golden State.
After Rose and Noah left, it seemed like the Bulls would take a step back, and they have. They're fighting to reach the .500 mark for the season. So with the Cavaliers among the league's best and the Bulls only two games away from missing the post-season, you'd think the Cavs would love to face Chicago, right?
Not so. The Bulls have beaten the Cavs all four times they've met this year. One of those games came without LeBron James, but the other three were just Bulls wins. It doesn't make any sense. New coach, new key players, same results.
The Cavs can't seem to stop the Bulls and allow them to just stick around.
On paper, a matchup with Chicago should be a comfortable win for the Cavaliers. In practice... who knows? Chicago has won six of their last nine games, meaning they have a little momentum heading into playoff time.
The playoff picture is looking like Miami could narrowly slide in. They're currently in the 8th spot, tied with both Chicago and Indiana at 38-40, but the tie-breakers favor Chicago, then Miami, meaning the Heat have an effective one game advantage over Indiana. The tale has been told already, but Miami started the season 11-30 and then became the hottest team in the league for about two months, throwing themselves in the thick of the playoff race. I mean, just look at the "game results" graph here. It's outrageous.
The obvious story here is that Miami lost LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to other teams, then lost Chris Bosh to a heart condition, and may have the chance to vanquish James in the playoffs. It's not terribly likely, but once again, Miami has beaten the Cavs two of three times. The lone Cavaliers win was a 30-point drubbing in December when things were going well. The Heat beat Cleveland in back-to-back games in March: Once with Love/James/Irving resting and the other at full-strength (and in Cleveland).
Realistically, the Heat are probably at the biggest risk of missing the playoffs. Dion Waiters (the legend) has missed the past couple of weeks and there's not a set timetable for his return. He's expected back soon, but that could be two days or eight, at which point it might be too late. Miami has been shaky without him, losing five of the eight games he's missed. The Pacers are right on Miami's tail and are at full-strength, although they're also struggling.
As mentioned above, Indiana hasn't played very well lately either. Prior to Tuesday's game vs. Toronto, the Pacers had lost four straight and seven of nine, effectively submarining their own playoff hopes. Indiana has had a strange season: They were supposed to be very good, then they were mediocre, then they were going to trade Paul George, and now they're struggling to stay alive.
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It's been a lot of that for the Pacers lately.
PG can play, that's for sure, but if he's going to leave in free agency they should trade him. They simply won't have enough to get deep into the playoffs and if they face the Cavs in round one, it clearly favors Cleveland. The Cavs are 3-1 against Indiana this season, which is nice for the confidence, particularly since Cleveland is 1-6 against those prior two teams.
Regardless, the Pacers took the Cavs to double overtime earlier this week and looked like the team they were supposed to be all year. Looks can be deceiving, but it suggested that maybe Indiana is turning the corner a little and will have something figured out for the last few games of the year.
Poor Hawks. In 6th place at 39-38, these guys were 34-26 on March 2 before a death-spiral for the ages began. Here's the thing; that death spiral may not be over. They've won two of their past 11 games and the final five on their schedule is Boston, Cleveland twice, Charlotte, and Indiana. All five of those games are meaningful to both teams. Yikes.
If Atlanta continues the way they're going, they probably won't hold onto the 6th spot, meaning they're a pretty likely opponent for the Cavs, either at 7 or 8. This would be a huge boost for the Cavs' morale, as the last two playoffs have included a sweep of Atlanta. What a way that would be to start this year's run as well. They're just like the Wizards of the mid-2000s at this point - a traditional beatdown.
Milwaukee Bucks & Charlotte Hornets
Milwaukee is in the 5th spot and would need to lose two games of ground to fall into 7th while Charlotte needs to make up at least one game on Miami/Indiana to get the 8th spot. These are the long shots for first round matchups for the Cavs, but both have proven feisty. Charlotte has Kemba Walker and the Cavs routinely get torched by point guards, while Milwaukee has Giannis to do whatever they need. Charlotte's Wednesday night loss to Miami may have sealed their fate in terms of playoff hopes.
There are no guarantees in the NBA playoffs, but LeBron James losing in the first is about as likely as... well, something that doesn't happen. James is 11-0 in first round series in his NBA career. Even with the Cavaliers struggling, it's hard to imagine a James-led team going down early.