No rest for LeBron as Boston showdown looms - are the Cavs nervous?
|LeBron and the Cavs dodged a bullet vs. the Spurs - but health remains a major concern|
51 minutes and counting for LeBron tonight. Cavs may want to rest him on their next road back-to-back... In Boston Wednesday. @CelticsLife— Mark Van Deusen (@LucidSportsFan) April 3, 2017
Sitting, however improbably at the top of the East - the first team to reach fifty wins - the Celtics find themselves a mere half-game ahead of the Cavs with five games left on the schedule, including a massively important final meeting between the two clubs. The Cavaliers have six games left in the regular season, one more opportunity to drop a game - or worse - so you'd think they would have at the very least played their stars a little less towards the end of a close game against the Pacers Sunday night before heading into a back-to-back that could very well dictate the course of their playoff seeding, and by extension, season.
That did not happen.
Every season for the last three years, we have been asking ourselves whether the only undefeated opponent in NBA history - time - would finally start to gain ground on LeBron, who has logged more minutes than any other player at this stage of his career than any player in history not named Earvin. To put that in perspective, he currently has logged more minutes than two other MVP candidates, Steph Curry and James Harden....combined. Compared to other NBA players of note also born in 1984, it's still not even close:
Of course, while we don't celebrate opponent injury on CelticsLife, we'd be lying if we told you this news doesn't make most Celtics fans optimistic about their odds of making the NBA Finals in ways which were, to be completely honest, simply unimaginable to any but the most homerific of Boston fans in October. Working J.R. Smith back into the rotation after not only missing several months with a broken thumb but also dealing with a new child born prematurely while Kevin Love is trying to play himself back into shape after missing several weeks due to knee surgery would be enough to cause any team major problems.
It was even worse.
Recurring injuries to new addition Kyle Korver and veteran wings Richard Jefferson and Iman Shumpert have added more pressure, and recent signees Deron Williams (injury prone and in need of minute limits himself) and Larry Sanders - effectively also playing his way back into game form on the fly after a two-year absence from the league - are taking up roster spots with little to no ability to contribute heavy minutes when needed. Even Kyrie Irving, whose health has had serious effects on the organization's playoff fortune in the past, has had to sit games due to nagging health problems recently.
(he should be)— justin quinn (@justinquinnn) April 3, 2017
Postseason success for the Cavs likely depends on the team's overall health heading into what is shaping up to be one of the most competitive ends to a season in the East since the last time LeBron played in Cleveland. It makes sense they did not rest against the Pacers - a loss to them would have put the Cavs a full game behind the Celts, and this team may need home court advantage as much as any team. But LeBron has been carrying the Cavs for some time, when truthfully, they should probably have been losing even more games this March - and you have to start to wonder if this is too much for even him to carry.
Last night was no exception. Looking back to that tilt, I could not help to think just how much of a risk Tyronne Lue was taking keeping LeBron in throughout not just the first, but also the second overtime, while I enjoyed arguably the greatest mano a mano duel of the regular season. Watching Paul George and James go one for one was undoubtedly some of the most entertaining basketball I have seen this year, but the whole time I watched it, the nagging thought "what if he gets hurt?" lingered in my mind.
LeBron goes down pic.twitter.com/8b850Id4z8— NBA RETWEET (@RTNBA) March 28, 2017
Don't get me wrong, I want Boston to have the best possible path to Banner 18, should such a prize fall in our laps as much through the now-nearly forgotten but once-vaunted depth as much as a revival of the old Ubuntu spirit that seems to have taken hold at just the right moment - but I won't be happy if it comes our way merely from injury. Overwork, and aging, however, I can live with - some good payback, perhaps, for that moment we saw the Big Three era slip away as much at the hands of time as the New York Knicks - and it seems like such a re-balancing of the scales may be underway. After logging a mind-boggling 52 minutes - and Irving 46, Tristan Thompson 43, Smith 42 and Love 37- James finds himself with a single day to recuperate before facing the Orlando Magic less than a week removed from that team nearly beating Boston.
Catch @poundcoyne and I as we talk about the #Celtics in the playoffs, the showdown vs. Cavs & more https://t.co/rcrcUnsd4j via @CelticsLife— justin quinn (@justinquinnn) April 3, 2017
As we noted on this week's podcast, the Indiana game was a clear indicator regarding not just the strategy of the Cavs coming into the Boston match, but of their feelings about the playoffs in general. A resting Cavs would mean a confident Cavs, and the response we saw was instead a desperate Cavs. That may play into their short-term goals come Wednesday - we had better expect a dogfight given what we've seen so far - but if they can't rest against Boston, and it's risky to rest against the Magic, you have to wonder what will happen as the Cavaliers face Atlanta twice (with a likely-healthy Paul Millsap looking to improve their own seeding), only to see yet another back-to-back with a desperate Miami Heat seeking to fend off a Pacers squad also desperate to get into the postseason, as much for the cache it would bring as to not lose Paul George. And if that isn't enough of a tough row to hoe, a surging Toronto Raptors may stand between the Cavs and their final playoff seeding, compared to Boston's remaining games against the Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Brooklyn Nets, and Milwaukee Bucks.
Boston’s most likely first-round opponent? The bottom of the East remains an uncertain jumble. pic.twitter.com/kEMKOVQF6D— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) April 3, 2017
Last year's home stretch was madness for teams three through six in the East, but this season no team has more than 1.5 games separation from the next potential seed save the four-game gap between fourth and fifth place, a largely unimportant gap given those two seeds face one another in the first round anyway. The playoff picture in the East hasn't been this fuzzy since Banner SEVENTEEN was still a goal, so buckle up - it's going to be a bumpy end to this ride.
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Photo via CBSSports.com
Data via basketball-reference.com
Follow Justin at @justinquinnn