There are still three teams in the Eastern Conference that are fighting for the last two playoff positions, with one of them destined to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have still yet to lock in their exact spot in the Eastern Conference as the playoffs are less than a week away.
The Cavaliers are “battling” with the Boston Celtics for the top spot in the East and home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
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Although it is hard to say the top two teams are actually battling when the Cavs have given the Celtics literally every opportunity for them to steal the top spot from them.
Regardless of where the Cavs finish in the standings and how they finish in terms of their quality of play, they will still face one of these three teams in the first round of the playoffs: the Indiana Pacers, the Chicago Bulls, or the Miami Heat.
So let’s take a quick look at all three and evaluate how they might match up with the Cavaliers.
Indiana Pacers (1-3 against Cleveland)
The Pacers will miss the playoffs if: they lose against the Atlanta Hawks AND both the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat win.
While the Pacers may have the best record of the group and a legitimate superstar in Paul George, they aren’t even the biggest threat of the three teams.
Unfortunately for the Pacers, not even an All-NBA caliber player such as George has been able to slow down the Cavs this season in their meetings.
The Pacers have the worst record among the three teams against the Cavs during the regular season and the one game they did win — way back in the middle of November — came during a game that LeBron James did not play.
The Pacers were an interesting team coming into the season with enough talent to propel themselves into the top four of the Eastern Conference; however, their poor coaching and lack of team play has derailed that vision.
Once you go past George, Myles Turner … and I’ll even throw in Jeff Teague for good measure, there isn’t much this team has to offer by way of consistent talent and production.
The Pacers have been mediocre in every sense of the word for the entire season and their record shows it, along with their 15th-ranked offensive rating and 18th-ranked defensive rating.
Kyrie Irving has scored at least 20 points in all four meetings while James has scored 25 or more in his three games against the Pacers.
While the Pacers do have the fourth-highest three-point percentage in the NBA (37.6 percent), they only shoot the 27th-most threes.
Arguably the Cavs’ greatest weakness is a lack of perimeter defenders and if the Pacers aren’t able to exploit that, especially against a team such as the Cavs, who shoot the second-most threes in the NBA (along with the second-highest percentage), they won’t be able to match and maintain the scoring streaks that the Cavs can rip off during any given quarter.
The Pacers are not a great passing team either and that has a lot to do with chemistry and the unknowns that are taking place within the locker room. Luckily for the Pacers, the Cavs have not been a great defensive team throughout the season and more so the last several weeks.
Moving the ball will the key to their success if they want any possibility of taking down the reigning NBA champs.
Series prediction: Cavs win 4-1
Apr 6, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Jimmy Butler (21) and forward Nikola Mirotic (44) react after a score against the Philadelphia 76ers during the fourth quarter at Wells Fargo Center. The Chicago Bulls won 102-90. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Chicago Bulls (4-0 against Cleveland)
The Bulls will miss the playoffs if … they lose against the Brooklyn Nets AND the Miami Heat win.
The Chicago Bulls swept the Cavaliers this season to the shock of pretty much everyone.
The Bulls have had an up-and-down season, never being able to spring ahead of their .500 record and move up the East standings.
From head-scratching front-office decisions such as signing Rajon Rondo and trading away Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott for couch change, the Bulls never seemed to have a legitimate chance to achieve their goals.
Unless their goals were to go undefeated against the Cavs in the regular season (which may be true, actually), the team has fallen short of practically everything except maybe a playoff spot.
If you thought the Pacers didn’t shoot many threes, then take a look at the Bulls and their three-point attempts. Not only are they 29th in threes attempted per game, they are the 26th-best team at knocking them down.
Not too surprising when their best three-point specialist, Nikola Mirotic, is shooting only 34.4 percent from three.
Another similarity the Bulls share with the Pacers is that they both have one superstar.
Jimmy Butler has had an All-Star season and is the only player on the team that is on the same talent level as any of the Cavs’ Big 3 (sorry, Dwyane Wade, this isn’t 2012 anymore), however, he needs consistent scoring around him for the Bulls to have a chance.
The Bulls have a lot, and I mean a lot, of rotation players that couldn’t hit a three if their lives depended on it; Rondo, Wade and Michael Carter-Williams all control a good chunk of playing time, yet are restricted to scoring much closer to the basket — never a good sign when going up against a team that has the ability to outscore you whenever they decide to.
Speaking of Wade, who recently returned after injuring his elbow, he hopes to enter the playoffs in the best possible form, a much-needed boost to the Bulls’ scoring if they plan to make a playoff run.
The Bulls defense is what kept Cleveland at bay, allowing them to score more than 100 points in only one game. The Bulls have a top-10 defense in the NBA and if they want to keep Cleveland from taking over a potential series, it will start and end with their defensive ability.
Winning the regular season series is nice, but its a whole new ballgame once the playoffs begin.
Series prediction: Cavs win 4-2
Apr 5, 2017; Charlotte, NC, USA; Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra gestures from the sidelines in the first half against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Miami Heat (3-1 against Cleveland)
The Heat will miss the playoffs if … they lose against the Washington Wizards OR the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers both win.
One of the best stories of the season has been the resurgence of the Miami Heat.
Starting out the season with a record of 11-30 and nothing on the brain except how to go about tanking and preparing for next season, the Heat decided to deny that prophecy and take out their frustration on the rest of the league.
The Heat have since gone 29-11 and are vying for one of the last two available playoff spots.
Although the Cavs have rested some key players in their matchups with the Heat (Kyrie and LeBron sat out two of the three losses), the Heat may be the scariest team that Cavs could match up against.
The Heat are essentially on a three-month long hot streak and haven’t shown signs of slowing down.
Goran Dragic is playing a high level of basketball, similar to his stellar stint with the Phoenix Suns, and Dion Waiters has been taking over games by himself with what must be a gigantic chip on his shoulder.
Given Dion’s past relationship with Cleveland, this potential series might mean a little bit more to him than it would others.
The Heat have also proven themselves as one of the top-10 best defensive teams in the NBA and a large part of that is due to Hassan Whiteside and his 2.1 blocks per game, good enough for third-most in the league.
Perhaps what makes the Heat the biggest threat to the Cavs, despite not having a Butler- or George-type player is their ability to defend Cleveland’s most lethal asset, the three-point shot.
I talk a lot about the three-point shot and teams that can and cannot defend it because of how prominent it has become over the years and how much the Cavs take advantage of the league’s three-point shooting influx.
With that being said, the Heat are the best of the three teams at defending the three. They’re actually the best in the entire league at doing so.
The Heat allow the fewest three-point makes and attempts and have the fifth-lowest percentage when defending the three, holding opponents to just 34.4 percent from deep.
The Heat don’t have enough pure talent to match the Cavaliers, but they do have the coaching and personnel that matches up quite nicely in their favor.
They are a reliable shooting team, excellent defenders both inside and out and have my choice for Coach of the Year with Erik Spoelstra. If any of these three teams has a chance to take out the Cavs early, it’s Miami.