The Cleveland Cavaliers have gone 6-9 in March and now share the number one seed with Boston, leaving a tight Eastern Conference up for grabs. The Celtics, Raptors, and Wizards are playing there best basketball at the right time. With just three games separating first and fourth, the battle for playoff positioning looks destined to come down to the final night of the regular season.
An embarrassing 103-74 loss to the Spurs on Monday night was a strong indication the Cavaliers are not where they need to be just weeks away from the playoffs. They shot just 15% from three point range, and often looked lost on offence. The scary part is that their offence isn’t their biggest concern right now. It’s their horrific defensive play that’s costing them games. They’ve given up 111.7 points per game over their last three contests, and are allowing 106.8 points per game for the season, almost 10 more than last year.
Significant injuries to Kevin Love and J.R. Smith have prevented the defending champions from gelling as a unit. Since returning to the lineup Love hasn’t been the same player he was before his injury when he was averaging 20 points and 11 boards per game. In the six games he played since returning he’s averaged just 13.5 points per contest.
Celtics Have Best Shot to Dethrone Cleveland
Winners of 8 of their last 11 games the Celtics are a legit threat to finish the regular season as the top team in the east. They held the one seed alone for about 48 hours before a 103-100 loss to the Bucks Wednesday night dropped them into a tie with Cleveland. Considering they’re 11-2 at home since February 1st, home court advantage throughout the playoffs would make them the biggest threat to dethrone LeBron James in the East.
Isaiah Thomas may be the only star player on their roster, but Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder are two of the league’s most underrated players. Bradley is one of the toughest defenders in the NBA, and averages a sneaky 16.6 points per game. Crowder has greatly improved as a three point shooter, up to just under 40%. His size and strength also allows the Celtics to small ball with him at four.
Surprising Wizards are in the Mix
A career year for John Wall has made the Wizards one of the surprise teams of this NBA season. The number one pick from the 2010 draft is averaging over 20 points for the first time in his career at 23.2 points per game and continues to be one of the league’s best passers at 10.8 assists per game. The combination of that and Wall’s backcourt partner Bradley Beal staying healthy and putting up a career best 23 points per game propelled Washington to their first division title in 38 years. With eight games remaining, the Wizards are in third in the East and sit two games back of Boston.
Raptors are Still a Factor
Despite being without All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry for their last 18 games the Raptors are right in the mix at the top of the eastern conference. Lowry is expected to return soon as he continues to rehab a right wrist injury. The acquisition of Serge Ibaka was potentially a season saving move. The Raps are 12-6 with him in the lineup, and until a 110-106 loss to Charlotte Wednesday night had won six straight games.
DeMar DeRozan has taken his game to a new level. He’s Averaging a career best 27.2 PPG, and has carried the team in Lowry’s absence. Unfortunately for him, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are having two of the greatest seasons in NBA history, or else he would be in the MVP conversation.
The Celtics, Wizards and Raptors all have seven games left, while the Cavaliers have two games in hand with 9. However their recent play has left the door open for any of the other three teams to make a push for the one seed. With the elevated competition in the east, it looks like it will take a little something extra from LeBron James to reach his seventh straight NBA Finals.
CLEVELAND, OH – JUNE 16: Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts in the first half while taking on the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)