Cavaliers face Knicks with No. 3 seed within reach
CLEVELAND — LeBron James said he is going to play in the season finale Wednesday against the New York Knicks, which means for the first time in his career he will appear in all 82 regular-season games.
As for the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers, well, that’s up to coach Tyronn Lue.
The Cavs (50-31) who host the Knicks after beating them on Monday 123-109, are playing for a shot at third place in the East.
The Philadelphia 76ers won their 15th straight game by beating Atlanta on Tuesday, and the Sixers hold a one-game lead over the Cavs for third in the East. For the Cavs to nab the No. 3 seed heading into the playoffs, they need to beat the Knicks while the Milwaukee Bucks beat Philadelphia.
If that happens, the 76ers and Cavs would finish with the same record, but Cleveland holds the tiebreaker against Philadelphia.
What Lue must decide is whether he wants to play all of his rotation players together for the first time this season, on the last day he can before the playoffs start, or just make sure the team is as healthy as it can be.
If the Cavs finish fourth, which is where they sit now, they would host Indiana in a first-round series for a second consecutive season.
“I think the most important thing is just making sure everyone is healthy,” Lue said. “I know guys are trying to be tough and tough it out but that’s not smart right now. We’ve got to be smart going into the playoffs, make sure we’re as close to 100 percent healthy as we can be.”
Then again, as long as James is playing, the Cavs have a chance in any game. James, 33, declared he would play in the finale because he is “healthy.” Not only will he play in all 82 for the first time in his storied career, but he will lead the NBA in total points for the first time, too.
With Monday’s win, James became the first player in NBA history to be on a team that won its division in 10 consecutive seasons. The Cavs clinched the Central Division by beating the Knicks.
“Throughout a long season if you’re able to accomplish feats, no matter what’s going on, you should always try to appreciate it, try to take time,” said James, who scored 26 points with 11 assists Monday. “I’m kind of like been a hypocrite of that because I’m always moving and trying to figure how we can be better the next day or whatever the case (might) be. So, it’s always hard for me to be like, ‘OK, another division crown.’ Even after all that’s gone on with our team and our ballclub this year, but it’s a pretty cool thing.”
James tied the Cavs’ franchise season record for double doubles (52 — Brad Daugherty), and can set the record Wednesday. Also, don’t get any ideas about James playing only a few minutes Wednesday to say he appeared in his 82nd game — he has his NBA record of 872 consecutive games with at least 10 points to protect.
As previously mentioned, the Cavs have yet to play a game with their current, full complement of players. If Rodney Hood returns from a sore Achilles and George Hill, Kyle Korver, and Jose Calderon are all allowed to play (they all suited up against the Knicks but continue to nurse minor injuries), Wednesday would be a first.
The best thing the Knicks have going for them now is rookie Frank Ntilikina, who scored a career-high 17 points to go with six rebounds and five assists Monday. Before Monday’s game, James said Ntilikina was “a very cerebral basketball player.
“I think defensively he’s more advanced than offensively but I think he’s getting better and better offensively as he’s gotten more opportunity and played more games.”
Ntilikina told the New York Post: “I’m thankful for (James’ words) coming from the top player in this league.”
“As a kid, I didn’t know I’d be here and able to compete against these guys,” said Ntilikina, who was drafted eighth overall last June.
New York (28-53) has lost six of its last seven and is tied with Brooklyn for the eighth-worst record (remember, the Cavs own the Nets’ first-round pick). The Knicks have lost 50 or more games four years in a row and haven’t been to the playoffs since 2013.
This could be coach Jeff Hornacek’s last game with the Knicks. New team president Steve Mills may want to hire his own coach; Hornacek was hired by Phil Jackson. Hornacek is 59-104 in two seasons in New York.
“Our guys didn’t quit,” Hornacek said, according to the Post. “I don’t think we’re that far off.”