As pretty much everyone knows by now the Boston Celtics have claimed first place in the Eastern Conference for the first time in 6 years - back when Paul, KG, Rondo, and Ray were still running together (also still had each other's phone numbers). The Celtics moving up towards the top of the East shouldn't be a huge shock to anybody, as most media outlets had the Celtics ranked 2nd or at least 3rd in conference in their preseason analysis, but nobody saw the C's ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers with less than 10 games to go in the season.
So what gives? The Celtics are one of the hottest teams in the NBA right now (8-2 over their last 10, best in the league) while the Cavaliers are playing some of their worst basketball of the season, or perhaps in Lebron's entire 2nd tenure in the Cleveland. The Cavs have lost 10 of their last 17 games, and since the All Star break they've post a 113.2 defensive rating which is even worse than the 111.3 the last place Brooklyn Nets have posted this year.
They missed Kevin Love for a good stretch there, 14 games, and although his scoring and rebounding is a big boost no one is going to mistake him for an All-World defender. They've gone 3 and 3 since his return to the lineup and their issues seem to go beyond his absence from the lineup. Nate Scott of Fox Sports see a lot more Cavs game than I do, and he seems to think their roster is caught in an identity crisis:
The loss to the Spurs on Monday night showed a true problem right now with the Cavaliers – they’re not quite small and quick enough to outrun teams, but they aren’t big enough to gut out wins in the paint. With fatigue setting in at the worst time, they’re a terrible hybrid of two styles, an aging, slow team that isn’t big enough to handle opponents’ post players. And for now at least, it’s killing them.
Lebron was adamant before the trade deadline that the Cavaliers needed to add playmakers to bolster their current roster. They picked up sharp-shooter Kyle Korver because JR Smith is having one of his Mr Hyde seasons and point guard Deron Williams to shore up the offense on the bench. Andrew Bogut was acquired to add some championship caliber defense and rebounding to the front line. Unfortunately for them Bogut lasted a total of 1 minute for the Cavs before going down with a season ending ankle injury. Then in a move that wreaked of desperation they added a forward/center who hasn't played organized basketball in over two years to help with their title push in Larry Sanders.
Cavs recall Larry Sanders; ending his second longest personal streak of being out of the NBA in the last two years.— McNeil (@Reflog_18) March 23, 2017
The kind of playmaker the Cavs really needed was something more of an intangibles presence. Bogut very well might've fit the bill had he stayed healthy, so this more or less might be a case of bad luck, but think more along the lines of Toronto adding PJ Tucker. There's a guy who always plays hard, he's both a solid defender and rebounder, and does the all little things that help you win games. The Celtics version of this is found in Marcus Smart who can shoot like complete shit, as he has been lately, and yet still have a positive impact in every game.
Cleveland was never going to have an issue scoring the basketball. With Lebron, Kyrie Irving, and Love on the roster even if you surrounded them with Division II college teammates they'd be able to get buckets. Their issues come on the other side of the ball. Everyone talks about them flipping the switch come playoff time, and that very well may be the case but we'll have to wait and see. Most of these guys on the Cavs were here last year, and Lebron makes a title run every single year so I'm not counting him out until he doesn't do it. But there might be more to these late season struggles than some would suggest.
Nate Scott closes his piece on the Cavs noting that the road to the finals in the East goes through Cleveland whether they have home-court advantage or not, but if another team, namely the Celtics or the Wizards, were going to make a run at the champs they might be vulnerable:
But this isn’t the same Cavaliers team we’ve seen. They’ve gotten a bit older. They’ve gotten a bit slower. And without that extra rim protection, they have serious questions about their defense. That might be enough for an upstart team like the Celtics or Wizards to sneak in there and knock them off. If it was ever going to happen, this would be the year.
If the Celtics do end up with the 1-seed they'll be putting themselves in a much better position to pull of a potential upset as the Cavs are 28-8 at home this year versus 19-18 on the road. There's a long way to go to get there, and a few formidable foes in between any potential Celtics/Cavs playoff showdown. But for the Celtics to have put themselves in this position heading into the postseason is nothing short of remarkable.
Follow Mark on Twitter: @MarkAL401
Mark Allison 3/28/2017 01:22:00 PM Tweet Edit