The NBA playoffs don’t begin for another week, but the Cleveland Cavaliers are treating the final days of the regular season as if the postseason has already started.
The Cavaliers continue their pursuit for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference when they host the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night.
Cleveland (47-32) is fifth in the East, one-half game behind Chicago, which beat Charlotte 100-81 on Friday. The Cavaliers will likely have to win out and hope the Bulls stumble in their final two games.
Chicago, which holds the tiebreaker over Cleveland, plays at Washington and New Jersey. After Friday, the Cavaliers will play two more teams out of the playoff picture, at Philadelphia and against Milwaukee to close the regular season.
“It’s critical to get the No. 2 seed,” Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. “I want to win as many games and be seeded as high as possible. If you don’t, it’s still not the end of the world. You still have to beat some good teams to get where you want to go.”
The Cavaliers already clinched home court for the first round and don’t want to finish with the No. 5 seed and likely have to face fourth seed and defending champion Miami.
“Looking at it, second place will have an easier way,” Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas said. “It’s going to be hard to beat a team like (Miami) four times. If we don’t get (the No. 2 seed), we’ll have to do it the hard way.”
LeBron James scored 35 points on 15 of 27 shooting and had eight rebounds in Cleveland’s 94-76 home win over New Jersey on Thursday. James scored 15 points in the third quarter when Cavaliers missed only three of 17 shots from the field and outscored the Nets 36-19.
“That was a pretty good quarter,” said Brown, whose team has alternated wins and losses since March 21. “I can’t remember the last time we’ve played a quarter of basketball that good.”
James, who averages 27.6 points, is averaging 30.7 points in three games against Atlanta this season. He had 27 and nine rebounds in the Cavs’ 89-76 win at Atlanta on Dec. 27.
Cleveland has won two of three this season against Atlanta (29-51), which lost 98-85 at home to Washington on Friday.
The Hawks, depleted by injuries and without six of their top eight scorers, had won two of three coming in. Atlanta is last in the Southeast Division and is without All-Star Joe Johnson because of right calf strain.
Marvin Williams had 24 points, Tyronn Lue had 16 and 10 assists in the loss. Williams averages 12.9 points on the season and 22.0 points in his last three games, while Lue is averaging 20.5 points and 9.5 assists in his last four games.
Lue is averaging 18.0 points in two games against the Cavaliers and had 19 points and 11 assists in Atlanta’s 104-95 win at Cleveland on Nov. 7.
Forward and second-leading scorer Josh Smith is expected back in the Hawks lineup Saturday after serving a two-game suspension enforced by the team for cursing at head coach Mike Woodson during a loss to Philadelphia on Sunday.