It’s been a weird season for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but another big performance from LeBron James clinches the top spot in the Eastern Conference for them. It gives the Cavs a chance to rest up on the final day of the season, and maybe consider Kyrie Irving finally back in the form they want him to be, putting his personal problems behind him for now.
The Cavaliers beat the Atlanta Hawks 109-94, making sure they don’t have to go into the final day of the season worried about finishing first. They’ll have home court advantage through the Eastern Conference playoffs. They have a shot of having one in the NBA finals too, but only if both the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs get knocked out along the way. Their 57 or 58 wins, depending on what happens next, would only place them third in the West.
James is finishing the season with some astounding shooting numbers in terms of efficiency. He scored 34 points against the Hawks on 13-of-16 from the field, including going 4-of-5 from beyond the arc, as if to show that the criticism of his three-pointer ability neglecting him this season came too soon. In the last four games he’s shooting 73.4% from the field on 16 attempts per game, along with making 72.7% of his three point attempts (2.8 per game) and 92.9% of his shots from the line.
But maybe the big deal in all of this has been Irving. He scored 35 points with a 14-for-28 performance, his best scoring game since early February. He’s had some abysmal shooting displays over the last few weeks, including 6-for-22 and 9-for-23 in the same week. But he seems to have rebounded following his poor performance in the loss to the Chicago Bulls, a team the Cavaliers are probably glad didn’t get into the playoffs. Irving still needs to show consistency, a problem for him all season long, but an inconsistent Irving is better than an injured one.
In an interesting move, Tyronn Lue, who thought about going small ball not too long ago and gave that up is giving Tristan Thompson a place in the lineup, already saying he’ll be the starting ‘5’ in the playoffs, while the struggling Timofey Mozgov becomes a secondary option. The numbers from Thompson as a starter aren’t that different from when he’s coming off the bench. He had 9 points, 10 rebounds and 3 steals in the win over the Hawks, and the Cavaliers have a net rating of +8.6 points per 100 possessions when he’s playing.
Whether this declares the Cavaliers won’t change their rotations and force teams to play their way, or simply an experiment Lue is confident in holding, not worrying about it failing because he has players to make up for one faulty cog in the machine remains to be seen. This still feels like the Cavaliers playoffs in the East, as it looks like James is taking up his level to his usual postseason performance tier a few days early. The convincing win over the Hawks possibly pushed away doubts about their potential problems against teams in the conference now that they have the home court advantage.