The home stretch is upon us, Cavs Nation.
Only 21 games stand between the Cleveland Cavaliers and their first potential playoff spot in over a decade.
The Cavs are 38-23 after the All-Star break, good enough for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. The Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers all stand ahead of Cleveland in the East. The Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat and New York Knicks are all within five games of the Cavaliers.
The last time the Cavaliers won at least 46 games without forward LeBron James on the team was in the 1997-98 season, where they went 47-35 under coach Mike Fratello and made it to the first round of the NBA playoffs, according to Cleveland.com sports columnist Terry Pluto. Former Seattle Supersonics forward Shawn Kemp and guard Wesley Person led the team in scoring with 18 and 14.7 points per game, respectively.
Though it won’t come without its rough patches, the Cavaliers may have an easier path than the rest of their Eastern Conference rivals to a postseason spot.
Tankathon gave the Cavaliers the fourth-easiest Strength of Schedule in the league, or “the average difficulty of those opponents that each team has faced or will face during the current season,” according to Power Rankings Guru. They rank ahead of the New Orleans Pelicans, the Detroit Pistons and the Dallas Mavericks.
The Eastern Conference standings have been a battle since the beginning of the 2023 season. The close standings have added to the importance of every game played by Cavs guard Donovan Mitchell, who called a New Year’s Eve battle against the Miami Heat a “playoff-type matchup.”
“This seeding is crazy,” Mitchell said. “You can either win four in a row and be second or lose four in a row and be tenth.
“Understanding that every game counts, but also the same token not putting pressure on yourself because it can wear on you as the year goes on.”
With only a quarter of the season left, and the trade deadline and the All-Star break officially in the rearview mirror, what teams will be the biggest hurdles for the Cavs to overcome before April?
The Celtics nearly didn’t miss a beat from their run to the Finals last season, taking a commanding 42-17 record by the All-Star break with a 25-12 record against Eastern Conference opponents.
The Cavaliers won their first two games against the Celtics, one in Cleveland and one in TD Garden. Both games went to overtime as both teams refused to back down. Forward Dean Wade put enough pressure on guard Jaylen Brown to stop a victory in Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, sealing a close 114-113 win in the second overtime thriller.
The Celtics are 10th in Tankathon’s rankings. They face the Sixers and the New York Knicks two more times, as well as the Bucks and Sacramento Kings in one more matchup each. Some of their easiest opponents (according to Tankathon) include the Washington Wizards, the Indiana Pacers, the Toronto Raptors and the Houston Rockets.
The return of guard Darius Garland gave the Cavs just enough firepower to defeat the Celtics on their home court in the first game. Guard Donovan Mitchell said he encouraged Garland to come out shooting to help him become more comfortable on the floor. Still, he never expected the high-volume scoring he witnessed against the former Eastern Conference champion.
“I can’t speak for everybody else, but I didn’t know what his rhythm was going to be like after being out for a month,” Mitchell said in a postgame press conference. “He came out like he’s been playing with us for this whole stretch.
“He really sparked us, especially in that first half, and he always seemed like he’s under control. It’s great to have him back out there.”
The Cavs will have to watch out for not one, but two stars in Brown and forward Jayson Tatum. The dynamic Boston duo had led the team in scoring since the 2020-21 season when the Celtics finished 36-36 before falling in five games to the big-three-led Brooklyn Nets in the playoffs.
The Cavs will face the Celtics twice more this season. The first game will tip off at 7:30 p.m. EST on March 1 in TD Garden. The game will be broadcasted on ESPN and Bally Sports Ohio.
Here’s where things get interesting.
The Sixers took first place in Tankathon’s Strength of Schedule list. They take on the Celtics and the Bucks two more times, providing an intriguing set of matchups should Cleveland need an extra boost to leap into a higher spot in the standings come playoff time. Some of the team’s easier matchups include the Pacers, the Chicago Bulls, the Charlotte Hornets and the Portland Trail Blazers.
A recent four-game winning streak gave the Sixers a comfortable two-game lead ahead of Cleveland in the East standings and a 7-3 record in their last 10 games.
Center Joel Embiid is averaging 25.4 points, 11.2 rebounds and four assists in 17 games played against the Cavaliers in his career, according to Statmuse. Guard James Harden has averaged 21.5 points and 11 assists against the Cavs since he first joined the Sixers in a blockbuster trade.
The Cavs took a heartbreaking 118-112 loss to the Sixers at the Wells Fargo Center just before the All-Star break. A barrage of 3-point shots in the first quarter, along with Embiid’s paint presence, led to a 14-point deficit by the end of the first and a 25-point difference by halftime. Though the Cavs managed to claw their way back, outscoring the Sixers by eight points in the third quarter and by 11 in the fourth, Cleveland couldn’t outpace Philadelphia enough to win.
Embiid finished the night with 29 points and 14 rebounds against the Cavs in the Wells Fargo Center, while Harden finished with 19 points and 12 assists.
Guard Donovan Mitchell spoke highly of the Cavs’ ability to fight back despite the massive deficit.
“I honestly think we just found things that worked,” Mitchell said. “They played well. They came out aggressive. We just continued to trust it and played with a little more, I don’t want to call it a sense of urgency, but I think we just played with a little more force.
“Realized we could get downhill, get open shots, make plays defensively and that’s what allowed us to put that stuff together.”
The Cavs will take on the Sixers at 7:30 p.m. EDT on March 15 in Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. The game will be broadcasted on ESPN and Bally Sports Ohio.
The Cavs will still have their fair share of strict tests from East to West before the playoffs start.
The Nuggets were given the most manageable schedule of the three tough opponents, ranking in 20th place as they face the Memphis Grizzlies twice, the Kings once and the Sixers and the Bucks once more. They will take on the Bulls and Pistons again before the playoffs.
Cleveland will take on the Denver Nuggets one more time before April, hoping to avenge an early-January loss in Denver. Mitchell didn’t make the climb to the Mile High City last time the two teams faced off. Guard Caris LeVert took his spot in the starting lineup, scoring a team-leading 22 points as he knocked down eight of his 13 shots.
The good news, Cavs Nation, is that the Cavaliers will face off against Denver at home in their final matchup.
The Nuggets last fell at Ball Arena in a 101-99 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in late January. Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander hit the game-winner, an eight-foot bank shot after a pump-fake with 11 seconds remaining to put Oklahoma City up by two before a missed shot from Nuggets guard Jamal Murray ultimately sealed the home loss.
“I think we learned the most from this loss out of the season,” Murray said in a postgame press conference. “We stayed together. We had great dialogue in the locker room after about what went on in the game, where we could be better and where we felt the game slipped for us.
“I think we’re only going to get better from this game.”
Denver exploded for a five-game home win streak following the loss, jumping out to a 27-4 record at Ball Arena this season after a 118-109 victory over the Dallas Mavericks.
Cleveland owns a 25-6 home record of its own. Its last home loss was against the Miami Heat, a game followed by a stern call for consistency from Mitchell in a postgame press conference.
“I think we’re all tired of coming here and saying ‘we’re learning,'” Mitchell said. “You want to learn through success in different ways. We haven’t played well. It’s just the honest truth. We’ve just got to find a way to do that.
“That’s through all of us. Our defense has held up. Offensively, we have to pick it back up as a group. We’ll turn it around and get better.”
The Cavs will tip off against the Nuggets at 7 p.m. EST on Thursday in Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. The game will be broadcasted on Bally Sports Ohio.