A few weeks before the end of the season, Cavs coach Ty Lue said something along the lines of “we aren’t going to rest guys anymore until we have the one seed locked up.”
That was a cool sentiment and everything, but as the season winded down to the final few games, LeBron and Cleveland reached an impasse.
They could either win their last couple games, snatch the one seed, and likely play Chicago in the first round. Or, they could lose, fall to #2, and likely play Indiana.
It was a bit more complex than that. The East’s 7-9 seeds came down to the final night, and they could have shaken down in any order between Miami, Indiana, and Chicago. But considering schedules and records, the most likely scenario was Indiana, Chicago, then Miami. Surely enough, that’s how it ironed out.
So, the Cavs essentially had their choice: Indiana or Chicago?
They decided to rest LeBron and Irving. They lost to Miami and then Toronto in the season finale and fell behind Boston.
So, what happened?
Ty Lue seemed intent on capturing the one seed and the Cavs played as such for almost the final month. But, when push came to shove, LeBron and Lue opted to “rest” (tank) to avoid Chicago in the first round. Why?
Well, for starters, Wade and LeBron are obviously great friends. There’s no way this was the driving impetus for LeBron’s avoiding of Chicago, but when given the choice between playing his best friend or not playing his best friend, LeBron’s likely going to opt for the latter.
Secondly, we’re all keen on the Cavs defensive struggles throughout the year, and having to defend Butler and Wade at the same time would have provided more issues for Cleveland than, say, the single-headed monster of Paul George. It’s easy to stop one guy – just put LeBron on him. But two high-level scorers? The Cavs would have probably been stuck with Iman Shumpert on Dwyane Wade while LeBron shadows Butler. That’s a favorable matchup for Wade, and we’ve all seen what he’s been able to do against Boston’s combo-guard defenders.
That doesn’t even touch on Rondo. I know he blew out his thumb the other night and is now out indefinitely, but Cleveland couldn’t have known that would happen. Rondo loves to grab boards and push. He shredded Boston in transition in the first two games of that series and considering Cleveland’s transition defense is no more than a sheet of one-ply toilet paper, Rondo would have had a field day getting into the lane and finding Chicago playmakers.
Simply, while Chicago’s regular season was tumultuous at best, the playoffs are a minuscule sample size. When you can pair two great hero-ballers in Wade and Butler with a battle-tested, pace-pusher point guard in Rondo, you can steal games in a seven games series. And when you receive unforeseen contributions from guys like Bobby Portis and Robin Lopez? Yeah, you can be a pretty hard team to beat, as Boston’s discovered.
Indiana, on the other hand? Well, you just kinda know what you’re up against. Teague and Ellis are anything but high-ceiling guys, and Myles Turner’s still getting used to the more physical playoff-style basketball. They have Paul George, and he truly is amazing, but when you can shadow him with LeBron and at least neutralize him, they become a pretty blasé unit. They’re unlikely to shoot you out of the gym, and have trouble beating teams better than them if PG13 doesn’t explode. News flash: Cleveland is better than Indiana, and barring a PG13 explosion, Cleveland will handle Indiana rather easily.
A series against Indiana entails far less variability for Cleveland. The Chicago Bulls are like 2017 Iowa State Cyclones (Hoiberg effect), while Indiana is like the 2017 Purdue Boilermakers.
You don’t know what you’re getting with the Cyclones: Monte Morris, Deonte Burton and Matt Thomas can all take over a game, and when at their best, they’ll beat anyone in the country.
Purdue, on the other hand, run through Caleb Swanigan, and are a pretty good team… But the only way they’re competing with teams better than them is if Swanigan puts Purdue on his back. Stop Biggie, stop Purdue. It’s not that simple against Iowa State.
I’m not saying it definitely happened, but if I had to guess, I’d assume LeBron and Ty Lue sat down and said “Yeah, I’d rather sacrifice home-court advantage in an ECF against Boston if it means playing Indiana instead of Chicago in the first round.”
Cleveland will never admit that, but it’s a bit suspicious that only a few weeks or so after Lue saying “we’re not resting until we have the one seed,” Lue rests his stars with the one seed on the line. They don’t really care about the one seed. The NBA Playoffs are all about matchups, and Cleveland matches up far better against Indiana than they do against Chicago.
How did the Cavs fare in their four regular season matchups with Chicago? Yeah, they lost all four. Against Indiana? The Cavs went 3-1.
Cleveland intentionally threw any chance at the one seed out the window, and the first few games of these playoffs have already validated their decision.