The most wonderful time of the basketball season is nearly upon us — the playoffs. Once basketball resumes after the All-Star break, everyone sees the light at the end of the tunnel. Those in contention know the playoffs are around the corner and there’s just that extra focus.
For the teams at the top of the Eastern Conference…there’s an extra focus to peak at the right time. Though the Washington Wizards are close, the race for the number one seed is coming down between two teams: the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics.
Initially, I thought that there wasn’t much of a race here. I thought that period where the Cavs were struggling, one/two weeks ago was Celtics’ chance to take the one seed but they didn’t take full advantage. But upon further inspection, the Celtics could take the one seed yet…
Let’s take a look at Boston’s remaining schedule:
Some very nice games here for the C’s. Brooklyn twice, Orlando and Phoenix at home and Philly on the road. But it’s that six game home stand in the later stages of March will have a huge say whether or not the Celtics can take the one seed.
Those are all winnable games but the two big games nestled in that home stand are the Miami Heat and the Washington Wizards.
The Heat, by far, would prove the toughest challenge in a 1-8 or a 2-7 matchup. You could make a strong case that the Heat — if they didn’t have so many injuries earlier in the season — would probably be well in the hunt for home court advantage. This will definitely be a tough game with high stakes for both teams, especially given last season’s regular season finale. I honestly believe that the Heat would beat the Celtics in a playoff series…
That Wizards game could almost decide who gets the number two seed, that’s a huge game in its own right. These two teams have beef.
Then, of course, you had the Wiz players wearing all black for their next meeting — the funeral game — which the Wizards won.
Looking outside of that home stand, the Celtics only have five road games left for the entire season. That’s all. And the ones they do have left should be pretty easy. They’re all against teams with records below .500, bar one in the form of the Atlanta Hawks. And then, of course, there’s the game that could literally decide who takes the top seed in the East: April 5th…a home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Celtics won at home against the Cavs last time out, so the Celtics’ belief will be there. If the one seed hinges on this game…what an incredible game it will be.
With Avery Bradley also now back in the fold, it sure looks good for the Celtics at the right time of the year.
How about the Cavs? How’s their schedule looking?
On the face of it, the Cavs seem to have a much more difficult sled of games than the Celtics. They play a difficult Jazz, embark on a four game road trip, come back home to play one game against a very good team in the form of the Washington Wizards and then head back out on the road to play the Spurs. That’s pretty rough, especially that San Antonio game. Add to that a home game against the Pacers (which could be problematic, you never know with Indy, but Cavs should win), a home-and-away against the Hawks, a road game against the Miami Heat and a home game against the Raptors to finish the regular season.
That’s a lot of teams with a lot to play for. Out of all of their remaining fixtures the Sixers, the Lakers, the Magic and, to an extent, the Hornets haven’t much to play for (Charlotte too far back of the eighth seed at this stage). Everyone else is either jostling for seeding or fighting for the playoffs in general.
There’s a number of factors you have to take into account when it comes to this Cavs team and the number one seed.
Firstly, do they even care?
In this six-year stretch (2011-present) where a LeBron James led team has advanced to the Finals, the Cavs had only had the one seed twice — 2013 and 2016. In 2011 the Heat defeated the top seeded Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Finals. In 2012 the Bulls, again, took the one seed but were undone by the Derrick Rose injury in the first round. In 2014, the Indiana Pacers, to be fair, were basically given the first seed by the Heat. If you remember, the Pacers were awful in the second half of that season, if Miami wanted the first seed they could’ve had it. They met in Eastern Conference Finals and the Heat prevailed in six games. In 2015, the Hawks stormed to the one seed but were banged up considerably by the time they met the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals with LeBron, again, pulling through.
LeBron has shown time and time again that he doesn’t need the one seed to make it to the Finals. I think things would be different if the overall top seed was in play and, as such, home court advantage for the NBA Finals. The first seed in the Western Conference has been the team who has claimed home court advantage for the Finals in recent years. But, once again this season, this is out of the reach of the Cavs.
Secondly, the Cavs want to be healthy by the time the playoffs arrive. This is the most important thing to them. Kevin Love is close to returning, as is Kyle Korver, and the Cavs have just got J.R. Smith back. The focus will soon switch to LeBron and Kyrie Irving.
Trailing by just .2 of a minute to Kyle Lowry, LeBron totals 37 minutes a night and hasn’t taken a whole lot of time off. Irving, meanwhile, is right up there too, logging 35 minutes a night. Eventually, Cavs head coach Ty Lue will have to bench these guys for some of these stretch games, especially LeBron.
If sacrificing a few games is what it takes to make sure LeBron and Kyrie are ready to rumble for another run to the Finals they should/will do that. But will this allow Boston to pass Cleveland for the one seed?
Another thing to consider is this… If the Heat are looking at the eighth seed and the Cavs are still the one seed…do you try get out of that series and possibly screw the Celtics over with that 1-8 matchup? No team should want any part of the Heat in a playoff series. Their record does not reflect fairly on that team and the Heat have actually beaten the Cavaliers twice in March alone, although one of those games LeBron and Irving were rested but the game Irving and James did play against the Heat — and lost — was in their own building.
None of this is to say that the Heat would beat the Cavs in a round one matchup, but it would be a very challenging matchup for sure, one you’d like to avoid if possible.
For all these reasons, I do think the Celtics will eventually end up with the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but if they face the Miami Heat in round one it may not matter…