There are plenty of worthwhile things to do early Monday night other than watch basketball, but it’s not the worst thing you could do. The Wizards and Pistons went down to the wire on TNT. For League Pass nerds, the Bucks and Hornets played a fun one that featured a Giannis Antetokounmpo triple-double. But it takes a special type of nerd to ignore both those games and instead watch the Greatest Worst Game of the Year: Cavaliers at Heat.
(As a Magic fan I also watched much of their 47-point loss to the Bulls, but that unfortunate decision is a personal issue that I won’t concern you with any longer.)
The reason Cleveland and Miami was such nerd bait was the awkward dichotomy between the high stakes of the game and the relatively low level of play. Big implications for both team’s postseason success was largely decided by James Johnson and Deron Williams. It was like the game geed didn’t have the video and audio synced; you could grasp the basic concept but what you were seeing just didn’t quite match up.
The finish featured multiple four-point plays, missed layups, weird turnovers and timeouts. This game had everything on the line and both teams stumbled to the finish.
The most glaring aspect of this is Cleveland falling to the 2 seed in the East while sitting both LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. With Boston playing Brooklyn last night, it was essentially ceding the 1 seed to the Celtics. News that they will also sit the final game basically locks in their spot. Of course, LeBron and Co. doesn’t and doesn’t need to care about the 1 seed, but to blatantly give it away doesn’t lead them into the playoffs on a high note.
There could be real reasons for the intentional drop. Maybe they see a 2nd round matchup with Toronto as more favorable than against Washington. I wouldn’t understand that, but it’s possible. Maybe they’d just like players like Williams (who had 35/9/7 with five threes!) and Kyle Korver (18 & 8 with four threes) to get their sea legs before the playoffs. They’ll have to play more minutes in a smaller rotation soon. Or maybe this is just a big middle finger to Adam Silver. Who knows. Whatever the reason, it looks like Cleveland doesn’t really care about the decision or its consequences. Perhaps this unburdened state is exactly where they want to be.
As for Miami, last night continued the same Bad News Bears-style run they’ve been on for three months. They have a shot to start the season 11-30 and finish it 30-11. That’s bonkers. The strategy is simple yet shockingly effective. Rely on James Johnson’s manic intensity and defensive pressure, let the crafty lefties Goran Dragic and Tyler Johnson work defenders over and unleash the bully Hassan Whiteside in the post. Since January, it’s been dynamite.
It’s easy to get caught up in this run, especially in a fun win like last night. But it also shows just how fragile their success is. The last month was a roughly .500 performance that probably shows the team they really are: one that splits the difference between 11-30 and 30-11. They’re also a team that plays a must-win game against a team missing its two best players and needs overtime to squeak out a victory. That doesn’t bode well for a 7-game playoff series.
Cleveland’s strange end-of-year strategy may help Miami in the long run as well. Miami absolutely matches up better with Boston than Cleveland. As evidenced last night, even the short-staffed Cavs can stretch this thin Heat team to the breaking point. Boston doesn’t have that level of shooting, and also doesn’t have LeBron. Isaiah Thomas may fear Whiteside above anyone but Rudy Gobert in the paint. LeBron also always seems to sit against the Heat so they aren’t used to playing against him. James Johnson is a good defender, but LeBron is still LeBron.
Yet it’s all moot if Miami loses tomorrow or both Chicago and Indiana win. Despite the frantic second-half run, the Heat don’t control their own destiny. I can think about how their first-round matchups will work; they probably shouldn’t yet. Last night was weird and interesting and fun and somehow important. But the best part is we get to do it all again tomorrow.