The 2016-17 NBA regular season, thankfully, is nearing an end. Though the tops and bottoms of the standings have all been straightened out since January or so, little has been made certain yet beyond Golden State’s move to ensure home-court advantage through the Finals. Even with just a short run left, there is still plenty to figure out as the NBA takes to April.
Since we all need the reminders as to who is set to start the playoffs where, who needs a bump during awards season or with a statistical accomplishment, and who is doing their best work in losing in order to grab improved lottery ball odds, Ball Don’t Lie is set to look at what should be your game of that particular day between now and the end of the term on April 12.
Cleveland at San Antonio, 8 p.m. EDT
In a season made all the more frustrating by its lack of showcase games – literal “Showcase” contests, as the NBA advertises them – the league will be pleased to hear that everyone is on board for Monday’s Cavs/Spurs contest. The Cavaliers will travel to San Antonio and the TNT setting with everyone on hand – LeBron James isn’t set to rest, Kyrie Irving isn’t set to sit, and Kevin Love has been cleared to play on the second half of back-to-backs following his midseason left knee operation – and the Cavs badly need to turn a season around.
The Cavs have been just over .500 since a string of midseason moves and injuries combined to give them every excuse needed to point to a playoff turnaround. They’re not the similarly-excused 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers, though, cheering on the return of defensive-minded young pup (he was young once, we swear) Derek Fisher, waiting out the weeks until Shaquille O’Neal seems interested in playing basketball again and defending a title. The Cavaliers are just bad at defense, full stop, and even as defending champs the Cavs hardly figure to improve based solely on late-season internal development.
“We just have to try to figure out ways to get him off the floor like last night, getting his minutes down,” Lue said Saturday night. “Then getting him off the floor tonight trying to do the same thing. He’s the only center we have. He has to play right now.”
“When Tristan plays against those big centers it’s tough on him,” Lue admitted. “To play every single night for four straight years — you don’t want him to have to wrestle with those big guys every single night on a night-to-night basis. It’s tough on him.”
Here’s where we’re at as a league right now. Not only is Thompson, at 6-9 maybe, the Cavs’ only center of note, but his 27.9 minutes per game average over his last 10 contests (down 120 seconds from his average on the year) appears to be of major concern for a coach in Tyronn Lue that has watched his team play nearly cellar-dwelling defense (ranked No. 23 overall) for weeks.
A win from Boston on Sunday pushed the Celtics into a virtual tie with Cleveland for the East’s top record with just a week and a half (ten games for Cleveland, eight for the Celtics) left to play. Cleveland needs to pile wins up, now, and San Antonio is more than aware.
The Spurs have one last push in them, and toppling the Warriors for the lead seed in the West is not completely out of the question. San Antonio sits 2 1/2 games in back of GSW with 10 to play of its own, and doesn’t figure to be sitting any major parts on Monday evening on TNT.
This will stand as a hellacious week, though. Beyond Cleveland the Spurs have the Warriors, Thunder and Jazz waiting on Sunday – nationally televised games, all. Monday night’s contest against Cleveland, with its home setting and freed-up schedule prior to performance (San Antonio’s last win came over the Knicks on Saturday night) could be our best chance to see these two squads in full between now and the end of the regular season.
And it could be, barring San Antonio’s first return to the Finals since toppling LeBron James’ Miami Heat in 2014, the last time we’ll see LeBron line up against Kawhi Leonard this season. If you have to compartmentalize an entire Finals’ worth of pairings between the rivals into one regular season contest, you might as well make it this one.
It might be, considering the line of the league, the best chance we’ll have at this sort of blockbuster between now and the end of the regular season. Take advantage, Monday.
Also worth watching
Detroit was gifted a reprieve for its recent sins with a Miami loss on Sunday, they’ll have a chance to move a half-game away from the last spot in the East on Monday with a win over the tanking Knicks … The similarly-lost Magic will be shooting to lose for its next batch of front office saviors in a game against a Raptor team looking to keep pace in the East. Toronto is a full game behind Washington for the No. 2 seed in the East … Dallas’ late move for a playoff spot (3 1/2 out of the last spot) could take a hit with a loss to the Thunder, with OKC working on the second half of a back-to-back … The Grizzlies should be wary of the Kings following Sacramento’s comeback win on Sunday … New Orleans did well to save its season with an impressive win over Denver on Sunday as well, but its playoff chances (four full games behind the No. 8-seeded Trail Blazers) could be blown to bits with a loss to Utah on Monday.
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