CLEVELAND: Thirteen thoughts for 13 points by Spencer Hawes (and 13 shots from Paul George) in an awfully impressive 90-76 win over the Pacers that just might count as the biggest win of the season…
1. When the Cavs’ deep thinkers recently plotted a path to the playoffs, there were two absolutes: They absolutely had to at least split these weekend games against the Nets and Pacers and they absolutely have to beat the Hawks on Friday. Conquer those two and they’ve got a real shot at making the playoffs after all.
2. The Cavs believe their magic number is 36. Get to 36 victories and they’re in. That will require a 6-1 finish (with one of those wins obviously Friday at Atlanta), along with a 4-6 finish from the Hawks and a 4-4 finish by the Knicks. It doesn’t appear as if the Cavs will hold any tiebreakers among the three so they must finish ahead of both.
3. The Hawks hold the tiebreaker in case of a three-way tie based on their 4-2 combined mark against the Cavs and Knicks (the Cavs went 2-4 against the Hawks and Knicks with Friday’s game still to come). The Knicks appear as if they’ll hold the tiebreaker over the Cavs based on a better conference record. Speaking of the Knicks, big win Sunday at Golden State for them. They conclude their West Coast trip tomorrow at Utah, but they still have to face Brooklyn twice, play at Miami and two against division-leading Toronto. By far, the Knicks have the toughest remaining schedule of the three.
4. If 36 wins indeed earns a playoff spot, it will mark the least victories to make the postseason (in a full 82-game NBA season) in exactly 10 years. The Boston Celtics earned the eighth seed with a 36-46 record in 2003-04. The team they edged out? The 35-win Cavs in LeBron James’ rookie season.
5. It’s hard not to consider Sunday the biggest win of the season. I know this team won at Oklahoma City, rallied from 18 at Golden State and won at the buzzer the other night at Detroit. But this was the best team in the East, a team the Cavs had lost to nine consecutive times and a team that traditionally dismantles the Cavs’ offense with their physical, aggressive defense.
6. The Cavs have not performed well in almost all of their pressure situations this year. Mike Brown argued the other night the Cavs won a big game in a pressure situation at the Pistons, but I disagree. There still wasn’t any pressure or legitimate belief this team could make the playoffs until Dion Waiters hit that shot at the buzzer. Then the Hawks lost again that same night and the Cavs’ deficit was down to a manageable 3 ½ games. That win at Detroit helped restart some of these expectations. Then they performed exceedingly well with the pressure on Sunday.
7. It’s amusing how many teams lose to the Cavs and consider it a travesty. The Pacers left the Q Sunday referring to this as their rock bottom. Warriors coach Mark Jackson referred to it as a bad loss the night the Cavs went into Oracle Arena and rallied. But this Cavs team is far tougher and more mentally resilient than they were early in the season. I was the one calling them mentally and physically soft for much of the first 2 ½ months. That is all changing. They have learned to persevere through injuries to key players like Kyrie Irving, Waiters, Anderson Varejao and C.J. Miles. Now they’ll await word on whether Irving can return for this road trip to Orlando and Atlanta.
8. In the three games Irving missed in January with a knee injury, the Cavs shot 35 percent and averaged 79.7 points in regulation (one of the games went to overtime). In the 10 games he has missed with this biceps injury, the Cavs are averaging 99.3 points and shooting 48.3 percent. Clearly they have learned how to adjust to life without their best player.
9. All of this is going to bring up a fascinating dilemma if/when Irving returns this week: Who will Mike Brown start? The Cavs’ best five-man lineup (in terms of net rating, minimum five games together) is Jarrett Jack, Waiters, Matthew Dellavedova, Luol Deng and Anderson Varejao.
10. Waiters has been terrific since Brown reinserted him into the starting lineup. Similarly, Jack has been playing some of his best basketball lately. I’d suspect Brown will start Irving and Waiters together, but that could cause problems at both ends. The lineup of Irving, Waiters, Deng, Tristan Thompson and Spencer Hawes has a woeful net rating of minus-43.8, meaning the Cavs are surrendering nearly 44 points more than they’re scoring (per 100 possessions) with that lineup. Granted, those five have barely played together (five games totaling 21 minutes) but that is appalling.
11. As reporters and camera men flooded around Matthew Dellavedova Sunday night, one team executive stood amazed. Quite a remarkable story for an undrafted rookie to make the type of impact Delly is leaving.
12. Want an amazing stat? Delly is part of the five best two-man combinations (minimum 100 minutes together) the Cavs can produce. The combination of Delly and C.J. Miles produces a net rating of 13.1; Delly and Anderson Varejao’s net rating is 12.2; Delly and Deng is 11.4, Delly and Waiters is 10.5 and Delly and Hawes is 10.3. Five of the top eight three-man lineups (for net rating, again minimum 100 minutes) also include Delly.
13. Given their struggles earlier this season, it’s remarkable the Cavs will be playing meaningful games in April, but here we are. I’ll talk to you Wednesday from Orlando.