Creeping Into Play-In Cavs’ Best-Case Scenario?


About a month remains of the NBA regular season.

Chances for the Cavaliers to close the gap in the Eastern Conference standings are dwindling. However, a major opportunity lies in front of Cleveland.

While it may seem like the Cavs don’t have much to play for, the playoffs are still very much a possibility. They stand just three games back of the tenth seed in the East, which would allow them to compete for a spot in the playoffs. While there’s still plenty to improve over the remainder of the season, history and the remaining schedule offers Cleveland a blueprint for success.

Look to Recent History

Some may argue it would be best for Cleveland to tank the rest of the season and try to “Fade for Cade” and draft Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham.

However, their best course of action may be to try and make the play-in tournament. The draft lottery odds have been flattened since 2019. The new odds give teams with lower odds a better chance at winning the lottery. The Pelicans were seventh in the 2019 lottery odds but landed the top pick and emerging megastar Zion Williamson. The Cavs could decide to attempt a playoff run and still end up with a high draft pick.

With the expanded playoff format this season, the Cavs have a greater-than-usual chance of playing in high-stake contests. Elimination games can be great for young teams to build on for next season. Competing with win-or-go-home stakes provides something you can’t teach: experience.

Take Memphis for example, whose young core greatly benefited from their play-in game during the NBA bubble last season. The Grizzlies entered the season with the lowest amount of NBA experience in the league. They had been aimlessly wandering through irrelevancy, just like Cleveland is now, since ending their fabled “Grit and Grind” era.

Even without one of their best players all year in Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis has had their best season in years. They’re on track to finish with their first winning record since 2016-17 and their first positive offensive rating since 2014-15.

There are obviously various factors to consider other than the one play-in game when evaluating the Grizzlies’ ascent into the playoff picture. Having an elite talent in Ja Morant certainly helps. That being said, Memphis clearly looks like a rebuilding team taking the next step into relevance.

The Cavs would be wise to take a page from their book. Cleveland wants to be where Memphis is in their rebuild and participating in the play-in tournament would give the youngsters ammunition for an even better 2021-22 season.

Third-Quarter Struggles

The Cavs have put together good stretches in the first halves, but too often they’ve started the second half flat. Among third-quarter statistics, Cleveland fares among the league’s worst:

  • Last in points averaging 25 points per quarter
  • 29th in plus/minus getting outscored by an average of 2.6 points per quarter
  • Averaging 3.7 turnovers, ranking 22nd
  • Averaging 5.9 assists, ranking 23rd
  • Allowing opponents to shoot 41.3% on threes, ranking last

Saturday’s loss in Chicago encapsulates their inept starts in the second half. The Cavs played well defensively early, holding the Bulls to just 18 points in the second quarter. With Cleveland leading by two at halftime, the Bulls took the lead just over a minute into the third quarter and never looked back. They outscored the Cavs 33-21 in the period shooting 6-for-9 from three-point range.

“We just came out flat in the third quarter,” Darius Garland said after the loss. “We’ve been dealing with that all year — the beginning of the first quarter and the beginning of the third quarter.” In order to climb up the standings, the Cavs can’t become complacent and need to start with each half with better energy and ball movement. That’s especially true when they’ve already put together a quality quarter together like the second quarter in Chicago. The consistency can’t wane from quarter to quarter if the Cavaliers are to climb the standings.

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Final Stretch

Thankfully for the Cavs, many of the teams ahead of them in the standings are on the last stretch of the schedule. The Wine and Golders are in the midst of a six-game stretch that includes five road games. The stretch includes multiple opponents ahead of Cleveland in the standings.

Notable games during the remainder of the season include:

  • vs. Chicago (4/21)
  • at Toronto (4/26)
  • Three games against Washington (4/25, 4/30, 5/14)
  • vs. Indiana (5/10)

Cleveland needs to have a winning record in these games if they are to qualify for the play-in tournament. For the first time all season, the Cavs have the majority of their rotation healthy. The organization can finally assess how their full-strength roster fits together and what needs to be added in the offseason. More immediately, though, a lighter injury report gives the Cavaliers their best shot at playoff games this year.

In the best-case scenario, Cleveland qualifies for the play-in tournament, wins two games to grab the eighth seed and likely gets crushed by either Brooklyn or Philadelphia in the first round. Worst-case scenario, they ride out the season on their current win pace while still knowing they improved from last season.

The closer they get to the best-case scenario, the more faith the fanbase will have in the direction of the franchise. If they end up closer to the worst-case result, fans will point to this final month of the season when identifying the Cavs’ missed opportunities.

Follow us on Twitter @CavsLead for the latest Cavs news and insight. 

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About Avi Carr-Gloth

Avi is an Emerson College graduate with a B.S. in Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @avicarrgloth to stay up to date on the latest Cavs content.

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