8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Cavaliers -1.5, Over/Under: 220
With the Playoffs just over Two Weeks away, half of the NBA continues to jockey for better postseason positioning as a pair of teams renew acquaintances in the process as the Cleveland Cavaliers face the Miami Heat from American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. Of course, when we refer to renewing acquaintances we’re referring to one LeBron James (27.5 PTS, 55.0% FG, 36.6% 3FG, 8.6 REB, 9.1 AST, 1.5 STL, 1.0 BLK, 28.8 PER), who took the Heat to four consecutive NBA Finals bookended by the rest of his career with his hometown franchise. The Four-Time MVP has proven adept at changing the fortunes of both franchises, immediately taking the Cavaliers (44-29, 3rd in Eastern Conference) to three straight Finals Appearances as well, with designs on a fourth, before the impending saga of his Free Agency this Summer. In truth, Cleveland’s current campaign may just be one of the most chaotic in Sports History, with the seismic trade of All-Star Point Guard Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics that resulted in a plethora of chemistry issues with the new arrivals (both on and off the court), inevitably leading to the Cavs basically trading away half of their team at the Trade Deadline, in a desperate attempt to correct course before the Playoffs. On top of that, injuries have robbed them of a number of key contributors, most prominently Kevin Love (18.0 PTS, 46.2% FG, 41.1% 3FG, 9.4 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.4 BLK, 23.0 PER), and in an odd twist their Head Coach Tyronn Lue, who stepped aside for an indefinite period to take care of some health issues. And if that’s not enough for you, then just look at their performance this season; after losing Seven out of their first Twelve Contests to begin the term, Cleveland promptly went on a 19-2 surge, followed a miserable 10-13 run heading into the All-Star Break, only to emerge from the respite with a 5-7 stretch, leading to their current form winning five straight outings. Their inconsistent nature is indicative of a team that has repeatedly hit the rest button after number acquisitions and departures, searching for the requisite chemistry to build a champion upon. Love, who had missed Seventeen Games returned just over a week ago, helping spark their latest run, as Lue & Co. look to get the All-Star Forward to gel with his new teammates, Rodney Hood (10.1 PTS, 42.1% FG, 32.7% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.4 BLK, 10.9 PER), George Hill (10.3 PTS, 45.5% FG, 37.9% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 3.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.7 BLK, 12.9 PER), Jordan Clarkson (13.6 PTS, 46.5% FG, 39.5% 3FG, 2.4 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.6 STL, 16.8 PER), and Larry Nance Jr. (11.2 PTS, 58.3% FG, 7.6 REB, 1.3 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.8 BLK, 22.6 PER). Since returning from a Broken Hand, the 29-Year Old Veteran fit right in with the new Supporting Cast, averaging 20.3 Points on 45.6% Shooting from the Field, including a stunning 48.1% from beyond the Arc, 10.0 Rebounds, 3.5 Assists, 1.0 Steal, and 0.5 Block, even knocking down the game-winning Three-Pointer from the corner in last week’s crucial 132-129 victory over the East-Leading Toronto Raptors. Of course, that Walk-Off came courtesy of a silky smooth drive and kick-out from James, who has been in absolutely TORRID form of late, averaging 34.4 Points on 61.5% Shooting from the Field, including 30.8% from Downtown, 9.6 Rebounds, 11.2 Assists, 1.2 Steals, and 0.8 Blocks during this 5-Game Winning Streak, including a ridiculous Thirty-Seven Points on 14-of-19 Shooting (73.7%) with Ten Rebounds, Eight Assists, and a Steal in a 121-114 rout of the Brooklyn Nets Sunday Night. Since departing from South Beach in the Summer 2014, LeBron has faced Miami on ten occasions, averaging 25.4 Points, 7.9 Rebounds, and 5.8 Assists, with the Cavaliers splitting those meetings.
Meanwhile, the Heat (39-35, 8th in Eastern Conference) continue to take blow after blow, yet have firmly entrenched themselves in the Playoff Picture. Barring a cataclysmic meltdown, Miami will return to the Postseason after a brief hiatus, for at this point it’s a matter of where they’ll be seeded as opposed to if they’ll seeded at all. At the moment, Eric Spoelstra’s charges hold the Eighth Seed in the Eastern Conference, owning a 5.5-Game Lead over the Detroit Pistons, while trailing the Milwaukee Bucks by only a Half-Game for Seventh. Injuries have forced Spoelstra to adjust his Rotation constantly, as he’s been without Rim-Deterrent Hassan Whiteside (14.3 PTS, 55.0% FG, 11.8 REB, 1.0 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.7 BLK, 24.1 PER) for a number of stretches this season; the 28-Year Old, Seven-Footer missed Thirteen Games in a row earlier in the campaign, and has recently been sidelined for the past two outings with a Strained Hip with no timetable to return. And then there’s the prolonged absence of Dion Waiters (14.3 PTS, 39.8% FG, 30.6% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 3.8 AST, 0.8 STL, 10.5 PER), who been out of action ever since December 22nd, undergoing surgery to repair a Broken Ankle. So like we said, this team has had to get creative with their Rotation in an attempt to remain above water; Thirteen different Players have seen at least Twenty Minutes per Game thus far, with nine of them averaging in double-figures, as Spoelstra continues to give virtually anyone a chance at competing for this team. Fortunately, more than a few of the unheralded the Supporting Cast have stepped up, including the likes of homegrown contributors Josh Richardson (12.9 PTS, 45.3% FG, 38.7% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 2.9 AST, 1.5 STL, 0.9 BLK, 13.4 PER) and Tyler Johnson (12.1 PTS, 43.8% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 2.3 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.5 BLK, 13.5 PER), coupled with fellow youngsters Justise Winslow (7.4 PTS, 42.1% FG, 41.4% 3FG, 5.3 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.5 BLK, 11.4 PER) and Bam Adebayo (7.0 PTS, 51.4% FG, 5.6 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.5 STL, 0.6 SBLK, 15.7 PER), along with journeymen like Wayne Ellington (11.4 PTS, 40.5% FG, 39.4% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.7 STL, 12.6 PER) and James Johnson (10.7 PTS, 50.3% FG, 32.2% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 3.8 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.6 BLK, 15.8 PER). And then there’s Goran Dragic (17.5 PTS, 44.8% FG, 36.3% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 4.9 AST, 0.8 STL, 16.8 PER), the criminally underrated Serbian Point Guard who was selected to his first All-Star Game this season. As if all that reshuffling of names and numbers wasn’t confusing enough, the Heat welcomed the return of their favorite son, acquiring franchise talisman Dwyane Wade (13.1 PTS, 43.3% FG, 23.3% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 2.9 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.5 BLK, 14.3 PER) in what amounted to a cash-dump deal with the Cavaliers, adding yet another piece to the puzzle. Wade, who ended his 13-Year Stay with Miami after a bitter divorce two years ago, returned in February, playing a far more prominent role than the one in which he spent largely on the Bench in Cleveland. Though he’s come exclusively come off the Bench for Spoelstra as well, the 36-Year Old has been arguably more effective, averaging 13.1 Points on 43.3% Shooting from the Field, 3.6 Rebounds, 2.9 Assists, 0.8 Steals, and 0.5 Blocks in 22.8 Minutes of Action, with the Heat going 7-8 since his return. While he’s certainly past his prime, the 3-Time NBA Champion can still be an invaluable asset off the Bench and more importantly in the Lockerroom, where there are a plethora of young talents that need to be pointed in the right direction.