The Cleveland Cavaliers don’t have to worry about getting to the playoffs any longer. Starting the postseason on the road, however, is suddenly a very real concern for the defending Eastern Conference champs.
After clinching a postseason berth despite extending their longest losing streak in nearly four months, the Cavaliers look to help their bid for home-court advantage in the first round as they host the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday.
Cleveland (40-33) secured its third consecutive playoff berth with New Jersey’s loss to Phoenix on Saturday, but the Cavaliers’ enthusiasm was tempered by their own 85-71 defeat at Detroit.
LeBron James, one of the Cavs’ heroes in their Eastern Conference finals win over the Pistons last season, was held to 13 points and 4-for-17 shooting from the field as Cleveland shot 36.5 percent in the loss - its third straight.
The Cavaliers hadn’t lost three in a row since their season-high six-game skid from Nov. 28-Dec. 8. James, who missed the final five games of that losing streak with a finger injury, hadn’t lost three games in a row since Cleveland was swept by San Antonio in last season’s NBA finals.
However, James seemed more concerned with Cleveland’s ongoing injury problems than its losing streak after forward Ben Wallace left Saturday’s game in the third quarter with back spasms.
“It’s been really frustrating,” James said. “Our team is based on consistency and trying to get momentum and it’s hard to do that when you have guys coming in and coming out. We know it’s part of the game, but it’s happening to us at the wrong part of the season.”
Wallace, a four-time Defensive Player of the Year, had missed Cleveland’s two previous games with the same injury, but declared himself ready to play against the Pistons - the team with which he played six seasons and won an NBA championship in 2004.
Now, he likely won’t play Sunday and his status for the rest of the regular season is uncertain.
“We just shut him down for a week, and it came back,” Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. “We’ll have to talk to our doctors and see what they say, but I don’t know what is going to happen.”
If the playoffs started now, the Cavaliers would open at home because they have the fourth-best record in the East. But three other teams are within striking distance of that fourth seed, including the 76ers (37-36).
After losing 13 of its first 17 games of the 2008 calendar year, Philadelphia has won 19 of its last 25 to pull into seventh place in the conference. Though they are three spots behind Cleveland in the standings, the Sixers trail the Cavaliers by only three games with nine remaining for each team.
Philadelphia, though, didn’t help its cause with Friday’s 107-93 loss to Phoenix. The Sixers trailed 38-19 after the first quarter and shot just 39.3 percent from the field overall.
“We weren’t as crisp as we have been,” said Sixers coach Maurice Cheeks, whose club hasn’t lost consecutive games since Feb. 1 and 4. “Our flow of the game wasn’t what it had been before.
“We’ll go back and look at the film and see what happened so we can refocus on some of the things we need to do. We’ve been pretty good as of late, and certainly you’re not going to be great every night out. But we’ve got to get a little better each night out.”
Philadelphia won its first meeting with the Cavaliers 92-86 on Dec. 15, also at Cleveland. These teams close their season series in Philadelphia on April 14 - the second-to-last game of the season for both clubs.