The Cavaliers are about to get a taste of what postseason basketball is like.
Actually, Mike Brown’s club is about to go one better than that: When the Cavs play the Atlanta Hawks tonight at the usually lifeless Philips Arena, they’ll be playing almost the equivalent of Game 7 of a playoff series.
At the very least, it will be like being down 2-0 in a best-of-seven series.
While a loss tonight won’t mathematically eliminate the Cavs from the postseason, logic says it will almost certainly result in a fourth straight trip to the NBA Draft lottery.
A win, on the other hand, won’t guarantee a playoff berth, but it will give the Cavs legitimate hope as they head into their final five games of the regular season.
Here’s the situation: The Hawks and New York are in a virtual tie — the Knicks lead by percentage points — for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta is 32-42, New York is 33-43 and the Cavs, who have won five of their last six and are playing their best basketball of the season, are 31-45, leaving them two games back of both teams.
But because Cleveland will lose head-to-head tiebreakers with the Hawks and Knicks — and will almost certainly lose a three-team tiebreaker — a loss tonight will essentially put it four games back of Atlanta.
If, on the other hand, Cleveland wins its six remaining games — a big if, yes, but the schedule isn’t that difficult — it will have 37 wins. That means the Hawks, who would be saddled with a loss tonight, would need to go 5-2 the rest of the way in order to tie the Cavs. If the Cavs lose tonight, the most they can finish with is 36 wins. That means struggling Atlanta, which would get a win, would need to go 3-4.
Even then, Cleveland still has to worry about the Knicks, who are suddenly playing well. New York, which hosts Washington tonight, has to finish 3-3 to get to 36 wins and 4-2 to get to 37. If the Cavs finish, say, 4-2, the Knicks would need to go just 2-4 to win the head-to-head tiebreaker.
If all these numbers are a bit too much, just look at it this way: If the Cavs win in Atlanta tonight, they still have a chance of making the playoffs. If they lose, they’re in (deep) trouble.
In essence, that makes tonight almost like Game 7 of a playoff series for Cleveland, not to mention extremely important for the Hawks.
Regardless of what you think about making the playoffs in the sad-sack East, the still young Cavs, who are 15-12 since David Griffin took over for Chris Grant as general manager, are at least getting a taste of what it is like to play important games late in the season.
“It’s playoff basketball,” guard Dion Waiters said recently.
Win tonight and it will continue to be like playoff basketball for the Cavs. Lose, not so much, though miracles do happen.
Cleveland concludes the regular season with games vs. Charlotte, Detroit, at Milwaukee, vs. Boston and vs. Brooklyn. Atlanta plays at Indiana, vs. Detroit, vs. Boston, at Brooklyn, vs. Miami, vs. Charlotte and at Milwaukee. After hosting Washington tonight, New York plays at Miami, at Toronto, vs. Chicago, at Brooklyn and vs. Toronto.
While it’s impossible to know when some high-level teams will start resting players for the postseason, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the Cavs have, on paper, the easiest schedule of the three.
On top of that, the Cavs are finally taking Brown’s defensive principles to heart, not to mention the fact they’re sharing the ball as well as they have all season, getting positive contributions from a lot of players and having fun.
Cleveland could ultimately earn a playoff berth because of its solid play down the stretch, or it could learn the hard lesson that all those games it gave away earlier in the season count just as much.
We’ll know, with absolute certainty, when the regular season ends April 16. But we’ll have a real good idea if the Cavs still have legitimate playoff hopes about 10 o’clock tonight.