Cleveland Cavaliers: Now is the time to take the Eastern Conference lead

Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images /

If the Cleveland Cavaliers want to overtake the Boston Celtics in the East, the next couple weeks are the time to do it. Here is why the stars are aligning for the Cavs.

The NBA season a marathon; an exhausting 82-game struggle from October to April to be one 16 teams still standing. Like any marathon, it features peaks and valleys. Some sprint to early starts, while others surge at the end. And when one team shows vulnerability, another pounces.

This is the time for the Cleveland Cavaliers to pounce on the Boston Celtics.

The Cavaliers are surging, winning 16 of their last 17 games. A four-point loss to Indiana is their only blemish since Nov. 9. The offense appears more in sync than many teams in the league, scoring more than 100 points every game since Oct. 29. In that time, they’ve tightened the standings, trailing Boston by two games for first place in the Eastern Conference.

Using our marathon analogy, the Cavs are running downhill with the wind at their backs.

On the other hand, the once scorching Celtics have cooled off. Boston dropped three out of its last five games with losses to a mediocre Jazz team and a Bulls squad playing for ping pong balls. In three of those five games, Boston failed to score 100 points. Kyrie Irving is once again hampered by injury. Jayson Tatum appears to have hit a rookie wall. And Al Horford, although still playing solid, has come back to earth just a bit.

In its marathon, Boston is currently plodding through mud while facing a stiff breeze, which is why Cleveland needs to seize the moment and pass its Eastern Conference foe. Over the course of a winding, 82-game season, there are only so many moments for one top-level team to gain ground over another.

Last year, a comparable Celtics team only experienced a 2-5 stretch five times, and two of those came after February with a postseason berth essentially locked down. With a squad so young, logic tells us Boston is likely to improve as the year progresses.

On other hand, the Cavaliers may not experience a stretch like this the rest of the season. “No duh,” you say. Winning 16 of 17 games is tough to duplicate.

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  • But there are anticipated shortfalls approaching. Jose Calderon, 36-year-old point guard, won’t average 12 points per game like has over the past four contests. The team will likely take time to adjust to the return of Isaiah Thomas, and Derrick Rose, for that matter.  Kevin Love, Jeff Green and Kyle Korver may fall off a bit, with each currently posting a win shares per 48 minutes well above their career averages.

    And then there is the usual midseason “slump” for LeBron James, where his play often plateaus around January before picking up at the end of the year. (Though with the way LeBron James is playing this year, who knows if that will actually happen.)

    With the fortuity of a fallout likely, Cleveland will need to utilize its generous upcoming schedule. Over the next five games, the Cavs host the Jazz, a team with a 3-10 on the road. Next are the Washington Wizards, led by a potentially fading star in John Wall. Then the Milwaukee Bucks, a team with two straight losses, followed by over performing Bulls and finally a Christmas date with the Golden State Warriors.

    The Celtics’ upcoming schedule is a bit thornier. Following a bottomed-out Memphis Grizzlies team, Boston faces a challenging Indiana Pacers team in Indianapolis. Then they welcome the Miami Heat to the TD Garden, a team that is 9-7 on the road and already beat Boston once. A road trip to New York follows, where the Knicks are 13-5. And then the Bulls prior to a Christmas Day bout with the Wizards.

    Down two games in the standings, Cleveland could be in first place by the time Santa Claus takes flight. But why is that even important? It’s been argued that having the top seed is useless in the playoffs.

    The Cavs, loaded with grizzled vets, probably care very little about where they play come May. But Boston is a different story. The Celtics are much better at home, 71-27 compared to (a still impressive) 54-43 road record during the the last two and a half seasons. In the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs last year, they won all four games at home while losing three in Washington.

    Yeah, they went 0-3 at home against Cleveland at home in the conference finals. So maybe that point is a bit insignificant.

    But what can’t be understated is the amount of the adrenaline Kyrie Irving will play when Boston visits Quicken Loans Arena. In his playoff return to Cleveland, he’ll be smattered with boos-chastised by a chorus of hecklers. He will feed off it and, undoubtedly, winning home contests will be harder for Cleveland this year. So it’s important to have more of them.

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    With a collision course with the Celtics seeming inevitable, Cleveland wants to pass them in the standings. The time to do that is now.