With the East being the most competitive it’s been in years, some of these bottom tier playoff teams have real potential to take a game or two off the Cavs, but which of these David’s should Goliath be truly afraid of?
With only around 20 games left in the regular season, the playoff picture is starting to come together and big surprise, the Philadelphia 76ers were the first team to be eliminated from playoff contention. This being said, the Eastern Conference has been broken down into four main groups; the contenders (Cavs, Raptors, Boston), the pretenders (Miami, Atlanta), the “anything goes” teams (Charlotte, Indiana, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington) and finally those “trusting in the process” (Orlando, Milwaukee, New York, Brooklyn, and King Philly).
While resting starters will become exercised more as April counts down, there are few around the league that believe Cleveland will drop the first seed. As long as they keep pace, and don’t drop stupid games to teams that are down five starters, the Raptors should get comfortable in the second seed. At the three-four seeds, Miami rise has a lower ceiling without Chris Bosh. Where the East becomes interesting is the “anything goes” group.
Only 4.5 games separate the 5th and 10th seeds in the East, and most of these teams have at least one head to head matchup left in the season, meaning anyone could land anywhere by the end of the season. One very fortunate team, however, will land the #8 and have the pleasure to tango with the Beast of the East. Here are three teams who can land in that seed and make some noise Cleveland can’t ignore.
So, as usual, the Wizards come with a disclaimer. They currently reside in 10th place, seated 1.5 games behind ninth and three behind 11th. There is a chance that they might not leave from this position, end up in the lottery again, continuing their rebuild. But at the same time, there is a chance for so much more. Admittedly, there are some real talented players on Washington. Their backcourt is a top-five backcourt, following Golden State, Los Angeles (Don’t think too hard), Toronto and Portland. John Wall is an All Star-caliber player. Marcin Gortat resembles a prime Zydrunas Ilgauskas for more reasons than just being a bald, Euro-ball star. We can pretend all we want that the Cavs are playing faster, but numbers don’t lie: Cleveland still is the second slowest team in the NBA. Washington, on the other hand, has speed down to a science.
Sure, Bradley Beal is made of glass, and beyond John Wall and Gortat there are very few players on that team that would be considered starters on even a remotely competitive team; but when they’re on their game, and Whitman has a game plan drawn out, the Wizards execute. The question in a playoff series is which Wizards team is going to show up to play? Will we see the fast paced, effective Golden State clone that currently holds a 2-1 series lead over Cleveland? Or will the chaotic mess that gave Cleveland sweet revenge a week ago show up? For the Wizards, they better hope it’s the former, otherwise they won’t even be seeing the playoffs.
Detroit actually holds the season series Cleveland at this moment, though don’t let that fool you into thinking they could actually win the series with the team they have. Both of the games that Cleveland lost were referred to as “Trap Games” (games that come after a big win against a big rival team, like the Memphis meltdown) and in a playoff mind set the Cavs will bully these Pistons, likely in a four-game sweep. What scares me about the Pistons is their youth rising under the fist of Stan Van Gundy. The Pistons can run the floor, Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond are two of the best young players in the league, Reggie Jackson is proving to be a good starting point guard and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope could turn out to be a top three shooting guard in the league. The longer these players play together, the more they will “gel” and fit into a system.
Speaking of a system, these young players are exactly what Van Gundy desires in a team. When he has a team that fits his mould, he can do magical things (or if their players take steroids they can upset a 66-16 team and rob the NBA from a Kobe-LeBron finals). SVG is a sneaky, top-five coach in the league, and that would show over a seven-game series. If the Cavs land this matchup, prepare for these games to be closer than expected.
Indiana is one of the biggest surprises this season. After losing David West and trading away Roy Hibbert, Indiana was forced into a mini rebuild around Paul George. George’s injury seemed to have cause amnesia among causal NBA fans, because people seemed to be forgetting that this was a team who consistently challenged the Miami Heat for dominance of the East during LeBron’s tenure. Paul George is a top-10 player in the league as of now, and at his prime he is a strong candidate for MVP. Myles Turner is making a case to receive some votes for Rookie of the Year (but we all know that awards going to KAT, sorry Poorzingis) and Monte Ellis has staged a revival of his career, establishing himself once again as a fringe All Star.
The team has found a way to embrace small ball under Frank Vogel (one of the better coaches in the league) and play a combination of gritty defense and fast-paced offense. Austin Carr explained on Cleveland’s recent contest against the Celtics that teams who “beat us (the Cavs) get physical with us and the league is figuring that out.” Indiana was one of the first to figure this out and has no fear of getting rough in these games. Cleveland owns the season series against Indiana 3-0, so why would there be a concern of losing?
Cleveland’s margin of victory over these three games is just 4.3 points. One of Cleveland’s very few overtime encounters has occurred against Indiana, and the Big Three seem to play more minutes on average against Indiana than almost any other non-Golden State/San Antonio/OKC team. Extrapolating Indiana’s record, 14 games have been lost by four points or less this season, games which if they would have won would put them four games ahead of Cleveland and only about three games behind San Antonio. Speaking of San Antonio, Indiana got into a slugfest with the Spurs on March 7th, resulting in 23 points for Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, and eventually Indiana pulled out the W, resulting in San Antonio’s 10th loss of the season. The Pacers deserve better than the record than the one they currently own, and pose a serious threat to maybe not knock off Cleveland, but wear them down far more than any first round matchup should.