8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Cavaliers -5, Over/Under: 221
With the All-Star Break now behind us, the march to the Playoffs amps up, particularly in the Eastern Conference as the revitalized Cleveland Cavaliers host the Washington Wizards at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. For the second consecutive season, the Wizards (33-24, 4th in Eastern Conference) look to be the stereotypical second-half team, finally coming together after meandering through the first half of the campaign. Injuries have played a huge role in their inconsistent nature thus far, and continue to do so in the present along with the near future; All-Star Point Guard John Wall (19.4 PTS, 41.7% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 9.3 AST, 1.3 STL, 1.1 BLK, 19.2 PER) has been out for nearly a month now rehabbing from surgery to his left knee, and isn’t expected to return until late March or early April, which really puts Scott Brooks and Co. in a precarious position. Obviously, Wall is indispensable to any successful Postseason Run, so you obviously want to grant him enough time to fully recover, but you also want to leave him enough time to regain his fitness and playing condition. However, the fact that Washington had begun to round into shape heading into the All-Star Break WITHOUT him, certainly makes the decision to implement the former strategy much easier; winners of seven out of nine contests before the respite, the Wizards find themselves just two games behind their opponent tonight in the loss column, residing at the Four Seed in the East. When we last saw them, they successfully rallied from an early deficit to best the struggling New York Knicks in a 118-113 victory at Madison Square Garden. Trailing by as many as Twenty-Seven Points, Brooks’ charges exploded in the Second Half, outscoring the hosts 39-15, on the strength of Bradley Beal (23.6 PTS, 46.1% FG, 37.0% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.5 BLK, 19.5 PER), who caught fire, scoring a game-high Thirty-Six Points on 14-of-24 Shooting from the Field (63.6%), including 4-of-7 from Three (57.1%), while also recording Five Rebounds, Seven Assists, Three Steals, and a pair of Blocks. Otto Porter (14.4 PTS, 49.1% FG, 40.4% 3FG, 6.4 REB, 2.0 AST, 1.6 STL, 0.5 BLK, 17.9 PER) added another Twenty-Two Points on 10-of-18 Shooting (55.6%), along with Six Rebounds, Three Assists, a Steal and a Block apiece, while Ian Mahinmi (4.5 PTS, 58.6% FG, 3.8 REB, 12.2 PER) chimed in with another Seventeen Points, Eight Rebounds, and Three Blocks off the Bench. On the whole, Washington shot a blistering 54.5% Overall, thanks in large part to some stellar ball-movement, dishing out a healthy Thirty-One Assists, while fiercely defending the rim, totaling Nine Blocks in what culminated in their eighth consecutive victory over New York, and their fifteenth out of their last sixteen against them. It’s been impressive to see how this team has adjusted without the presence of Wall, one of the top playmakers in the league, with credit going to Brooks and his Coaching Staff for being able to reroute their gameplan on the fly. After all, the veteran Point Guard has missed a total of Twenty Games thus far, so the Wizards have had quite a bit of experience in playing without him. Beal’s maturation into a more complete player has certainly helped, with the 24-Year Old Sharpshooter really rounding out his game this season. Long regarded as one of the league’s deadliest marksman, he’s done a tremendous job of elevating the other parts of his game, averaging career-highs in Rebounds (4.5) Assists (4.2), Steals (1.2), and Blocks (0.5), all the while helping to supplement the playmaking role left behind by his Backcourt Partner. Furthermore, in the month of February alone, he’s logged more minutes than at any point of the campaign, while handing out 6.3 Assists per Game in this span. He’s played no small part in the team going 7-2 since Wall’s surgery, with Washington accumulating at least Twenty-Six Assists in eight out of their last nine outings. So what’s been behind this big turnaround for Beal, you ask? Health. Plain and simple. Injuries have dogged this guy throughout his Six-Year Career; prior to this season, Beal had missed an average of 17.2 Games per Year, and has managed to avoid that in 2017-18, starting all Fifty-Seven Games this term.
Meanwhile, the riveting drama that is the Cavaliers (34-22, 3rd in Eastern Conference) continues to be the most interesting story in the basketball world, for the shear volume of plot turns and twists is enough to publish a novel. Seriously, there HAS to be a documentary about this tumultuous campaign in the works, right? From the highly publicized Trade of All-Star Point Guard Kyrie Irving that brought in another decorated (though injured) Floor General in the form of Isaiah Thomas (14.7 PTS, 36.1% FG, 25.3% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 4.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 12.3 PER) along with Jae Crowder (8.6 PTS, 41.8% FG, 32.8% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 10.2 PER) from the Celtics, to Cleveland’s precipitous decline in form on the court (coupled with increasing discord both on and off it), to the sudden and shocking jettisoning of nearly half of the Rotation at the Trade Deadline, to all the new faces coming together in the shortest of orders to elevate the team to once again being the favorite to come out of the East, there has been no shortage of material for the legion of journalists out there. And of course, we didn’t even mention the impending Free Agency of one LeBron James (26.5 PTS, 54.4% FG, 36.2% 3FG, 8.1 REB, 8.9 AST, 1.5 STL, 1.0 BLK, 27.7 PER) serving as the backdrop of it all. As bad as the Cavs had appeared to be before the seismic changes made at the Deadline, it’s remarkable to see how quickly they’ve managed to gel in such a truncated period of time. Keep this in mind, folks: Cleveland traded away the aforementioned Thomas and Crowder, along with corpse of Derrick Rose (9.8 PTS, 43.9% FG, 25.0% 3FG, 1.8 REB, 1.6 AST, 11.6 PER), Iman Shumpert (4.4 PTS, 37.9% FG, 26.9% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.6 STL, 6.4 PER), and Channing Frye (4.8 PTS, 49.7 % FG, 33.3% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 0.6 AST, 13.8 PER), in a series of deals that netted them the likes of George Hill (9.5 PTS, 40.0% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 2.0 REB, 2.5 AST, 0.5 STL, 10.9 PER), Rodney Hood (14.5 PTS, 52.4% FG, 50.0% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 1.5 STL, 0.5 BLK, 22.4 PER), Jordan Clarkson (15.5 PTS, 61.9% FG, 57.1% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 2.5 AST, 1.0 STL, 25.5 PER), and Larry Nance Jr. (9.0 PTS, 46.7% FG, 6.5 REB, 2.5 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.0 BLK, 21.5 PER). If that wasn’t enough, Tyronn Lue’s reconstructed charges immediately went out and absolutely EMBARRASSED Irving and the Boston Celtics in a 121-99 drubbing at TD Garden, before continuing their newfound momentum with a 120-112 victory at the Oklahoma City Thunder. This one was arguably more impressive than the previous win, for when these teams last met in Northern Ohio, the visiting Thunder effectively ran James and Co. out of Quicken Loans Arena in a 148-124 demolition back on January 20th, a performance that only hastened the multitude of changes made short weeks later. As a team, the visitors shot a scorching 51.1% from the Field, including 16-of-36 from Downtown (44.4%), while efficiently dishing out Twenty-Four Assists in comparison to just Seven Turnovers. James was dominant, scoring a game-high Thirty-Seven Points on 14-of-23 Shooting (60.9%), while adding Eight Rebounds and Assists apiece, while the newly added Hood, Clarkson, and Nance combined to score Forty-One Points on 16-of-30 Shooting (53.3%) off the Bench. Indeed, these guys are paying immediate dividends for the Cavaliers, with Hood exhibiting his shooting prowess (4-of-8 3FG), Nance actively patrolling the Paint (8 OREB, 2 BLK), and Clarkson providing playmaking for the Second Unit (4 AST). Remarkably, it appears that in a matter of roughly thirty minutes, this team has gotten younger, deeper, and more athletic, while energizing those players leftover after the dust had settled. Even veteran Guard J.R. Smith (8.5 PTS, 40.0% FG, 37.6% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.9 STL, 8.7 PER) looks like a new man, with Lue injecting him into the Starting Lineup in an attempt to ease all the new faces into the Rotation; the mercurial 32-Year Old has averaged 16.5 Points on a ridiculous 70.6% Shooting from the Field, including 69.2% from Three over the last two games, all the while offering more than just a scoring touch, recording averages of 6.0 Rebounds, 2.0 Assists, 1.0 Steal, and 1.0 Block during that time. With All-Star Forward Kevin Love (17.9 PTS, 46.3% FG, 40.4% 3FG, 9.4 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.7 STL, 22.8 PER) continuing to rehab from a broken left hand, and due to return shortly before the Playoffs begin, the Cavaliers could yet return to being the true Beast of the Eastern Conference, though their collective performance over these next few months will ultimately decide as to whether or not everything they’ve done will indeed be enough to keep James from departing his hometown once again, for while they are certainly ahead of the curve at this point, the clock is still ticking on this team.