This week presents an opportunity for the Cavs not only on the court, but in the standings
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Danny Cunningham covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and thelandondemand.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @RealDCunningham. The Cleveland Cavaliers enter what certainly figures to be their biggest week of the season firmly entangled in a seeding race in the Eastern Conference. The lead they have over the New York Knicks for homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs has dwindled to one game after New York’s ninth straight win, coming on Sunday night in double overtime in Boston.
Conversely, the Cavs trail the Philadelphia 76ers by 2.5 games for the third seed in the conference, a spot that seems less and less likely with every win by the Sixers, especially their victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night.
Where the team sits in the standings isn’t something that goes unnoticed in the locker room for the Cavs, either. Players on the team are aware of where they are heading into this stretch and what needs to be done.
“I check it every day really,” swingman Caris LeVert said. “I'm always watching games and that's something that we talk about as a team as well, just finishing strong and not only keeping our seed, but trying to move up as well. So, I think as a team, that's something that we're definitely looking forward to.”
It is something that’s hard to avoid this time of the year. It’s something the Cavs dealt with last season as they slid out of the playoffs, into the play-in, and ultimately failed to qualify by losing two games in the tournament. Last year, the goal was to stay in the top six. This year, the goal has appropriately shifted to holding onto home court in the first round.
“We know what homecourt advantage means,” Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said on Saturday evening. “But it's not something where you allow that to be a distraction. You focus on every single moment that you can control in every game, and that's where you put your energy and effort. A lot of times when you're caught staring at standings and things like that, you lose focus and lose sight on all the small battles that you have to fight in order to hold on to it.”
The Cavaliers still have the benefit of a favorable schedule on the way out of the season. After this week, the Cavs will only four more games this season against teams that are currently in the top six in either conference, with a pair of those games against the Brooklyn Nets.
This week, featuring a game against the Celtics on Monday night before a pair of games in Miami against the Heat on Wednesday and Friday, is as big as it’s going to get for the Cavs the rest of the regular season. It’s the final three games of a five-game stretch that can go a long way in determining where the Cavs end up at the regular season’s conclusion.
If the Cavs take two or more of these three games, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about not only how the team finishes out the regular season, but also about its chances of success in the postseason. Success this week would keep the team in fourth place over New York before six of the next seven games are against teams below .500 or the struggling Nets.
That stretch serves as a real opportunity for the Cavs, while the Knicks spend a week out west and return to face playoff teams in Denver and Minnesota before a trip to Miami. It’s also a time when the Cavs will have to win frequently to hold on to any hope of catching Philadelphia, which has a very difficult schedule down the stretch of the season, including each of its last 10 games against teams in either the playoffs or the play-in, including a west coast trip that includes games in Golden State, Phoenix, and Denver.
The opportunities for the Cavs will be there if they play up to the standard they’ve preached about all season. The opportunity is more than just hanging onto homecourt though. It’s a chance to make a statement that the Cavs are a team that’s able to win games against the best teams in the NBA. That’s something that hasn’t been on display lately, even if it’s not something that is entirely their fault.
The Cavs can only play the schedule that’s in front of them. They don’t control that the early portion of the schedule was heavier with contenders and the back half is a bit lighter. But on the season, the Cavs are just 14-19 against teams that are .500 of above. Their last win against a team that’s currently over .500 was back on February 2 against the Memphis Grizzlies. Since the calendar flipped to 2023, the team is just 5-10 against teams currently at or above .500 for the season.
This week is a chance to change that.