Let’s say things had gotten crazy towards the end of the NFL season. Maybe the Pats lose their game to the Ravens in Week 14, Derek Carr never gets hurt and the Raiders end up grabbing the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Would anybody really consider the Raiders the team to beat?
That’s kind of what’s going on in the NBA right now. The Celtics are first in the Eastern Conference, a spot they could very conceivably hold at season’s end, yet there isn’t even a drop of “this is the year” talk from even if their most loyal fans. That’s all because of LeBron James (in the East, at least) and that’s probably warranted.
Yet there’s a reason the Cavaliers aren’t running away with the East this season and it’s greater than the fact that James-led teams typically don’t go for broke in the regular season; though LeBron has reached the NBA Finals in six straight seasons, only two of them saw him do so as a top seed.
That reason is, in large part, injuries. Kevin Love has underwhelmed since his return from knee surgery (13.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in a little over 26 minutes a night compared to 20.0 points and 11.1 rebounds in nearly 32 minutes a night before the surgery), while Kyle Korver has been in and out with a left foot issue. The team considers J.R. Smith to be in “training camp” in his games back from a fractured thumb.
This is also by far the worst defensive Cavaliers team since James’ return in 2014-15. Cleveland allows 106.8 per game, which ranks 21st in the league. In each of the past two seasons, they allowed an average of 97.9 points.
All that said, the NBA often boils down to star talent, and James and Kyrie Irving is probably better on paper, with whatever flotsam and jetsam you give them, than anything else you can jot down in the East. It was a similar story when the Heat finished with the No. 2 seed in three of James’ four seasons there. They steamrolled the No. 1 seed Bulls in five games in 2010-11 and beat the top-seeded Pacers in six in 2013-14.
Yet the supporting cast is diminished and so too has been the team’s performance. With a less-than-healthy Love, the Cavaliers aren’t nearly as intimidating. All this while the Celtics have won seven of eight. That’s not to say the Celtics don’t have their share of fool’s gold. Of the aforementioned seven wins, only three came vs. teams in line for a playoff spot and the loss came to a terrible 76ers team, albeit without Isaiah Thomas.
Yet would it really be so out of the question that a healthy Celtics team, with Thomas in a career year, Marcus Smart continuing to emerge and Al Horford beefing up a roster that was one-and-done in years past, could give a vulnerable Cavaliers team a run for its money, especially with a home-court advantage?
Maybe not, and maybe it will be a moot point by the time late April rolls around, but for now, can’t we read into the Celtics as contenders just a little bit?
SAN ANTONIO -- The Cavaliers acknowledged having heavy legs, yet there is something far weightier on the minds of the defending NBA champions.
Cleveland is in the midst of one of its worst stretches this season and there is little time to fix it.
Kawhi Leonard scored 25 points and the San Antonio Spurs dismantled the ailing Cavs 103-74 on Monday night in a much-anticipated showdown that turned into a major letdown for Cleveland.
"The way we've been struggling, (the Spurs are) the last team that you want to play," said LeBron James, who was fine after taking an elbow to the neck. "A well-oiled machine like this, they exploit everything that you're not doing well at that point in time of the season and right now we're not playing good basketball."
James, who finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in 29 minutes, said he will play Thursday at Chicago.
Cleveland (47-26) dropped its second in a row, set a season low for points and fell a half-game behind Boston (48-26) for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Cavaliers have nine games remaining, all against teams in the East, including a visit to Boston on April 5.
James said the standings "always matter," but playing more consistently is far more important and he refused to blame injuries or an arduous schedule for the team's troubles.
"It matters more that we're playing better basketball than where we're at," he said. "If that results in us having the No. 1 seed, the No. 2 seed, 3 or whatever the hell it is, we need to play better basketball. That's what it comes down to."
What Cleveland is seeking, the Spurs have already found.
San Antonio (57-16) is two games behind Golden State (59-14) for the league's best record entering a home game against the Warriors on Wednesday.
The Spurs have won five straight and 8 of 10 after sweeping the season series with the Cavaliers.
"It was a big game, but in the end, it's just one game, and one win," San Antonio guard Tony Parker said. "We're trying to be consistent. We're trying to play the same way every game. It was definitely surprising. Coming off a loss, I thought they would play with a lot more energy, but it can happen. It's a long season. It's just one game and I'm sure they're going to bounce back and use this game as motivation."
San Antonio led by as many as 33 to the delight of the sold-out crowd, and the Spurs' bench outscored the Cavaliers' reserves 49-24.
"We did a good job coming out early and then keeping our foot on the pedal," Leonard said.
"You lose Korver and Shumpert off your bench and things tend to change," Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. "With those two guys out, we tried some different things and it didn't work. It was not on the bench. It was on me."
Lue said he has considered resting his stars over the team's final nine games, which James is not in favor of.
"Coach is going to have his logic of things, but we need to play," he said.
James exited with 25 seconds remaining in the third after taking an elbow to his neck from David Lee on a rebound. James continually rubbed the area before collapsing after he crossed midcourt. He remained on the floor for about a minute before walking unassisted to the bench.
James left for the locker room early in the fourth quarter during a timeout, but said afterward he is fine.
Irving returned to the court for about 15 minutes following the loss to work on his jump shot. The star guard had eight points and two assists in 26 minutes. He finished 4 for 13 from the field and missed his two 3-point attempts.
Cavaliers: Cleveland completed its schedule against the West, finishing 16-14. In addition to losing to the Spurs by 29 points, the Cavaliers lost by 35 to Golden State and 30 to the Los Angeles Clippers . . . James needs 24 points to pass Shaquille O'Neal for seventh overall in career scoring. O'Neal has 28,596 career points . . . The Cavaliers averaged 116.3 points in their previous four games.
Spurs: San Antonio is holding opponents under 100 points per game for the 22nd straight season . . . Danny Green tied his season high with four blocked shots . . . Leonard has scored in double figures in 100 straight games.
Cavaliers: At the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night.
Spurs: Host the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night.