A game behind the Philadelphia 76ers in the race for the third seed in the NBA Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers long ago received a gift from the schedulers: home-and-home matchups against the woeful and wounded New York Knicks to end the regular season, starting Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
Whether the Cavaliers can catch the scorching 76ers remains to be seen. Philadelphia is the NBA's hottest team with a 14-game winning streak -- including a 132-130 victory over Cleveland on Friday -- and with games at Atlanta and at home against Milwaukee still on the schedule.
But the Cavaliers have their eyes on that crucial prize, made even more crucial by No. 2-seed Boston's injury problems. A third seed would ensure a second-round matchup with Boston or the No. 7 seed. A fourth seed could mean a meeting with the No. 1 seed Toronto Raptors.
"I always think you try to take the easy way out, it's always going to come back and bite you," Cleveland's Kevin Love said after losing to Philadelphia. "Both teams played extremely hard tonight, we both wanted to get the higher seed no matter who we're playing. Some matchups work in your favor, I guess, but I just think taking the easy way out in some cases is not the way to go."
The Cavaliers' loss to the 76ers revealed a glaring weakness that seemed to have been cured. Cleveland gave up 132 points.
The Cavs entered that matchup on a five-game winning streak and with wins in 10 of 11. The first five wins were scary -- the Cavaliers allowed an average of 113 points per game -- but in the six games before the loss to Philadelphia, Cleveland had allowed 102 points per game.
"We're a prideful team, and the only way to get back in was be scrappy, play a little bit more physical and hit more shots," James said. "We were down 30, and for us to come all the way back shows what were capable of doing. But every offensive rebound here, every missed shot. ... We turned the ball over, they made us pay, and they were flying."
Luckily for the Cavs -- at least for the next two games -- the Knicks are one of the worst offensive teams in the NBA.
The Knicks have gone 4-16 in their last 20 games, averaging 105.5 points per game, and that includes 128-, 124-, and 122-point nights. Remove those and New York averaged 102.
Hurting the Knicks: Tim Hardaway Jr. (ankle) remains out.
Solution for New York: The emergence of rookie second-round pick Damyean Dotson, a two-way player with the G-League's Westchester Knicks. Dotson had 30 points and 11 rebounds in 36 minutes in the team's surprising 122-98 win over the Miami Heat on Thursday.
"It's amazing. Just trying to stay the course, keep believing, keep working hard," Dotson told reporters after becoming the first Knicks rookie to put up a 30-10 game since Patrick Ewing in 1985-86. "Eventually something good will happen. It's playing the right way, believing in myself, believing in the development, coming from the G-League, coming from back and forth, playing."