LeBron and Kyrie out, Love questionable for Cavs-Heat game with huge playoff implications

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4391/" data-ylk="slk:Kevin Love">Kevin Love</a> (left), LeBron James (center) and <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4840/" data-ylk="slk:Kyrie Irving">Kyrie Irving</a> will get the night off on Monday. (AP)
Kevin Love (left), LeBron James (center) and Kyrie Irving will get the night off on Monday. (AP)

The Cleveland Cavaliers will apparently give their top guns the night off for Monday’s matchup against the Miami Heat, a decision that could reverberate throughout the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.

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From Joe Vardon of cleveland.com:

The Cavaliers will sit LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love tonight against the Heat in apparent choice of rest for the playoffs over continuing the fight for the No. 1 seed. […]

The Cavs are planning to start J.R. Smith, Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert, and Deron Williams against the Heat, who need to win to keep pace with the Bulls for the eighth seed.

Cleveland’s lineup listed above was posted as part of the team’s media notes for tonight’s game and is subject to change.

Cleveland made it official shortly after Vardon’s report:

The Cavs are coming off consecutive weekend losses to the Atlanta Hawks, including an overtime affair on Sunday in which Cleveland blew a 26-point fourth-quarter lead. James played 41 minutes and 25 seconds against Atlanta on Friday and 47 on Sunday. Irving logged 33:21 on Friday and 44:37 on Sunday; for Love, 34:40 and 42:27.

Cleveland enters Monday at 51-29, the same record as the Boston Celtics. The Cavs hold the No. 1 spot in the Eastern Conference by virtue of winning the head-to-head tiebreaker with last week’s blowout in Boston, but still need to finish with a better record than the C’s to take the East’s top spot and home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.

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The Cavs can still clinch first place a) by beating both Miami and the Toronto Raptors in their final two games; b) by winning one of those games while the Celtics drop one of their final two; or c) if Boston loses both of its remaining contests.

The Celtics finish out their regular-season slate with eminently winnable games against the Brooklyn Nets — who own the NBA’s worst record, but who, to be fair, have been a pretty watchable, near-.500 team with a top-10 defense since the All-Star break — and the Milwaukee Bucks, who clinched a playoff berth over the weekend but could still be playing for positioning in the lower half of the Eastern bracket.

Evidently, after crushing the C’s at TD Garden last Wednesday — and after having gone 11-3 on the road in the Eastern Conference playoffs over the past two postseasons — the Cavs aren’t sweating the possibility of dropping down to the second seed by losing a game over the final three days of the season. Despite several months of consistently inconsistent play, especially on the defensive end, the defending NBA champions remain confident in their ability to go into any gym and come out a winner, so long as all of their principal pieces remain in proper working order.

“The last 10 games, we’re 5-5,” James said after Sunday’s loss. “We’ve had some good moments and some not-so-good moments. The main thing is we want to be healthy.”

The Cavs’ efforts to ensure good health might have a significant ripple effect throughout the Eastern bracket. To wit:

• Facing a Cleveland squad without its top three scorers and playmakers could be a huge boon for the Heat, who enter Monday at 39-41, even on record with the Chicago Bulls, but behind Chicago in the race for the East’s eighth and final playoff berth, since Chicago owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Miami. The Heat also trail the 40-40 Indiana Pacers, presently the East’s No. 7 seed, by a game for one of the conference’s two unclaimed playoff spots; Indy holds the tiebreaker there, too.

Once again, the Miami faithful will miss out on seeing their former MVP …

… but this time around, you’d suspect they might not mind all that much.

• This probably doesn’t make Toronto feel all that good. After knocking off the New York Knicks on Sunday, the Raptors assured themselves of finishing no worse than third in the East and avoiding a meeting with the No. 1 seed until the Eastern Conference finals. With all due respect to Isaiah Thomas and company, we’d suspect that the Raptors would prefer to face the C’s in Round 2 and put off another matchup with Cleveland, who eliminated Toronto in six games in last year’s Eastern finals, as long as possible.

• On the flip side, the Washington Wizards, who are locked into the No. 4 seed after losing to the Heat on Saturday and watching Toronto win in New York on Sunday, just opened the door to a second-round matchup against somebody not named LeBron James (provided they can get out of Round 1, of course).

• Most of all, this is a fairly sizable bummer for the Pacers and Bulls, both of whom can clinch a playoff berth if they win their Monday games (Indy visits the Philadelphia 76ers, Chicago welcomes the Orlando Magic) and if Miami loses to Cleveland:

So, yeah: an awful lot about the shape of the playoff picture could change on Monday night. The lesson, as always: as LeBron goes, so goes the Eastern Conference — even when he’s not playing.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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