These final two weeks of the regular season should give them a good idea of what to expect in their pursuit of an East championship.
The Cavaliers are set to begin a string of games against teams they could possibly face in the playoffs beginning Wednesday night against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Of Cleveland’s eight remaining games, seven involve teams that have either already clinched a playoff berth or are in the postseason mix in the East. Over the next two weeks, the Cavaliers (58-16) will play Milwaukee (41-32), Boston, Toronto, Chicago, Orlando and two games against Atlanta. Indiana on April 9 is the only remaining team Cleveland will face that is out of the playoff picture.
“You want to continue to play against the best, especially going down the stretch,” James said.
The Cavs played their last game against a West opponent Sunday, defeating Sacramento 97-90. The game marked Zydrunas Ilgauskas’(notes) return to Cleveland after being traded to Washington in February for Antawn Jamison(notes). The 7-foot-3 center never played for the Wizards, instead deciding to buy out his contract.
Ilgauskas wasn’t the difference in Sunday’s victory, finishing with four points and six rebounds. That distinction went to James, who scored 23 of his 34 points in the second half. The reigning league MVP also had eight assists and seven rebounds.
The Cavaliers split two games James sat out earlier this month with a sprained right ankle, but they have won eight of nine since his return. The one blemish during James’ absence was a 92-85 loss in Milwaukee, which snapped Cleveland’s six-game winning streak in the series.
James, who is averaging a league-best 29.8 points to narrowly lead Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant(notes) (29.6 points per game), has averaged 31.8 points while shooting 16 of 29 (55.2 percent) from 3-point range in his last six games against the Bucks.
While James and the Cavs haven’t had much trouble pushing Milwaukee around in the past, things could be different this time.
One of the league’s biggest surprises, the Bucks are fifth in the East, 1 1/2 games up on sixth-place Miami, and are poised to finish only behind Cleveland in the Central after five straight years of finishing last in the division.
With Tuesday’s 107-89 win over the Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee is assured of finishing the season .500 or better for the first time since 2004.
“We were picked to finish last by every ‘so-called’ expert in the United States,” said Andrew Bogut(notes), who had 14 points and nine rebounds Tuesday. “That’s an accomplishment in itself. We’ve had a successful season to this point. There’s a lot of room for improvement, no doubt.”
One of the biggest reasons for this season’s turnaround is the addition of John Salmons(notes), who was acquired from Chicago at the trade deadline. Salmons is averaging 19.5 points in 21 games since the trade with the Bucks winning 17.
“He’s a versatile player,” Jamison said of Salmons. “Defensively, he can hold his own, guard you one-on-one. Offensively, he can stretch out the defense and create shots for others. He’s just an overall great team player. He’s done a great job of making the team better.”
Salmons didn’t have one of his better games in the win over the Cavs earlier this month, scoring 12 points on 5 of 17 shooting, but rookie Brandon Jennings(notes) made up for his struggles, finishing with team highs of 25 points and six assists.