Any playoff intensity in the burgeoning rivalry, however, may have to wait.
LeBron James(notes) may be held out of a third straight game along with teammates Mo Williams(notes) and Antawn Jamison(notes), but Orlando figures to go full steam ahead Sunday afternoon as the East’s top two teams conclude their regular-season series at Quicken Loans Arena.
They’ll enter the 2010 playoffs as heavy favorites to meet for the conference title, and they’ve played three intense games so far this season - two of which were won by Cleveland.
The top-seeded Cavaliers don’t have much to gain Sunday. Cleveland clinched the league’s best record last weekend and after beating Toronto on Tuesday, it has rested James in the past two games. Mo Williams scored a season-high 35 points in a 109-108 loss at Chicago on Thursday before he and Antawn Jamison (ankle) joined James on the bench for a 116-113 home loss Friday against Indiana.
Earlier this week, coach Mike Brown referred to the Cavaliers’ remaining schedule as “high-level practice.” Brown hasn’t ruled out sitting James for the team’s final two games, and Williams and Jamison could follow.
“There’s a chance,” Brown said. “I talked about that with my staff and I talked about it a little bit with LeBron, too. We’ll take that one game at a time and see how it goes.”
There’s at least a little more incentive for Orlando to play its starters Sunday despite being locked into the East’s No. 2 seed. The Magic and Los Angeles Lakers are tied for the league’s second-best record, meaning home-court advantage is still up for grabs should the teams meet again in the NBA finals.
“This is really the first time in my career that I’ve worried about home-court advantage throughout the whole thing,” Carter told the Magic’s official Web site. “My thing is approach (the last three games) the same way. If we win all the games, everything else will fall into place.”
Coach Stan Van Gundy made his thoughts on resting his starters abundantly clear.
“I don’t know what it gains you, quite honestly,” Van Gundy said. “My question would be why? For what reason? These guys have been playing all year. They get days off.
“I’d hate to be sitting there in the finals going, ‘You know what? We would have had a shot at this if I didn’t rest so-and-so for no damn reason.”
Howard averaged 25.8 points and 13.0 rebounds against Cleveland in the East finals, but has been held to 17.3 points and 11.3 boards per game against Shaquille O’Neal(notes) and the Cavaliers this season.
It was initially thought that O’Neal, who’s been out since late February with a sprained thumb, might return Sunday to get some work before the playoffs, but Brown said that’s unlikely.