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5 Things to Watch for During the Cleveland Cavaliers' Final Games

Luke PetkacSenior Analyst IIJanuary 14, 2017

5 Things to Watch for During the Cleveland Cavaliers' Final Games

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    The end of the season may be nearing, but there's still plenty going on with the Cavaliers.
    The end of the season may be nearing, but there's still plenty going on with the Cavaliers.Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    With just a handful of games left in the season, the Cleveland Cavaliers are locked in a three-way dogfight for the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Which in and of itself makes their final few games pretty compelling.

    There's more to watch than just the standings, though. The Cavaliers added a lot of new pieces this year, and they're still trying to work out the kinks on both ends. Young players are still developing, veterans are trying to mesh with the rest of the squad...win or lose, these final games are important moving forward. 

    Here's what to be watching for. 

The Postseason Chase

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    The Cavs will have to fight through the Hawks to have a real shot at the postseason.
    The Cavs will have to fight through the Hawks to have a real shot at the postseason.David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    This is an obvious one, but it's worth reiterating.

    Somehow, someway, the 30-45 Cavaliers have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs. It's a slim chance, no doubt—ESPN's playoff odds have them at just four percent. And the Cavs will almost certainly need to go something like 6-1 or, at the worst, 5-2 over their final stretch of games.

    Still, though. Cleveland might make the playoffs!

    Of the three teams duking it out over the Eastern Conference's eighth seed (Cleveland, the Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks), the Cavs have by far the easiest remaining schedule, per NBA.com.

    The only team they'll face with a winning record is the Brooklyn Nets, and there's a pretty good chance Brooklyn will rest all its stars anyway since that game is its last of the season.

    The important games are April 4 against the Hawks and April 5 against the Charlotte Bobcats.

    The Hawks are in a bit of a tailspin, having lost six straight before pulling out an inevitable win against the Philadelphia 76ers. So despite being 0-2 against the Hawks this season, the Cavs have a real chance. If they lose this one, the playoff dream essentially dies, so it might be the most critical game of the season.

    At home against Charlotte is the toughest game on the docket and the game the Cavs are most likely to lose. The next four games are (or at least should be) in Cleveland's favor, so if it beats Charlotte...

    Well, the fact that the Cavs are even in the playoff hunt at 30-45 is a minor miracle in and of itself. It's been a while since Cleveland was playing meaningful games in April, and regardless of the outcome, that alone should make Cavs fans happy.

Matthew Dellavedova's Minutes

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    Dellavedova's been nothing short of terrific for Cleveland.
    Dellavedova's been nothing short of terrific for Cleveland.David Sherman/Getty Images

    Rookie guard Matthew Dellavedova isn't the biggest name on the Cavaliers roster, but he's been one of their most important players this season. It'll be interesting to see how many minutes he receives as Cleveland tries to make one last playoff push.

    Dellavedova's numbers aren't all that impressive (he's averaging a modest 4.6 points and 2.4 assists in around 17 minutes per game), but when he's on the floor, the Cavaliers are actually good. 

    With Dellavedova in the game, Cleveland's net rating is plus-2.7, and when he's out, it drops all the way to minus-7.5, according to NBA.com.

    Virtually every one of the team's top player combinations has Dellavedova in it, and when he's on the floor, the Cavs defend at a top-five level. Dellavedova's a Nick Collison-esque plus/minus stud, and he gives Cleveland a combination of defense and floor spacing that its other guards don't.

    Dellavedova's no lockdown defender, but he's pesky, understands where to be and Mike Brown has been nothing but complimentary of him on that end (though that's probably because he looks like Tony Allen compared to Kyrie Irving).

    He rarely creates his own offense, but he's been a killer spot-up shooter, hitting 41 percent overall, per Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required) and 46 percent from the corners.

    The Cavs have made no end of short-term moves in an attempt to squeeze into the playoffs, but the solution right now might just be to play Dellavedova more. It's definitely worth monitoring his minutes down the stretch.

Scotty Hopson

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    The Cavaliers recently signed former Tennessee Volunteer guard Scotty Hopson to a two-year, $3.8 million contract, a move that, according to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, was made with future deals in mind. Next season, Hopson's deal will be nonguaranteed, making it a potentially valuable trade asset down the line.

    Still, Hopson averaged 15.5 points and 4.2 rebounds in the Euroleague for Anadolu Efes, so it's not as though he can't play.

    Hopson is a serious athlete, has some size at 6'7” and shot a whopping 48 percent from deep in the Euroleague, per DraftExpress. Plus, based on his highlights (for what they're worth), he's got a decent off-the-bounce game, too.

    Hopson's not going to factor into Cleveland's future plans (its on-court plans, anyway), but the Cavs' wings and guards are pretty banged up, and he's definitely got the size to play multiple spots. He's being paid $1.35 million for just the seven final games of the regular season, so it'd almost be weird if he didn't get in at some point.

    It's an interesting situation to say the least.

The Tristan Thompson/Anthony Bennett Situation

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    Thompson is a great rebounder, but he has to improve his defense.
    Thompson is a great rebounder, but he has to improve his defense.Bart Young/Getty Images

    According to AP Sports Writer Tom Withers (via Yahoo! Sports), there's a chance that Anthony Bennett, who suffered a strained right knee in early March, could be out for the season. But even if he doesn't play another game, the situation between Bennett and Tristan Thompson is interesting.

    Bennett is clearly a big part of the Cavaliers' future, and he has an intriguing skill set, poor season or not. But Bennett's also a clear 4, and...um...so is Thompson.

    Cleveland has experimented with smaller lineups that featured both of them, but those lineups have been an absolute disaster on both ends. Eventually, the Cavs are probably going to have to choose between the two of them, and right now, Thompson is the one with the most to prove.

    Yes, Bennett's season has been rough, but he's the younger player, and Thompson has plateaued this year. His highly publicized shooting-hand switch likely plays a part in his stunted offensive growth, but the bigger concern for the Cavs is Thompson's defense.

    Cleveland has been awful defensively with Thompson on the floor, and his rim protection is quite frankly disastrous.

    Opponents are shooting nearly 60 percent at the rim against Thompson, the second-worst mark in the league among players who are facing five or more shots per game at the basket, via NBA.com's SportVU.

    That's passable for players like Kevin Love or Spencer Hawes, who have the shooting range to be paired with defensive-minded bigs without compromising offensive spacing. A healthy Bennett will hopefully also have that kind of range. But Thompson doesn't, and likely never will, putting his future with the Cavs in jeopardy.

    Thompson is a productive player and a terrific rebounder, and it wouldn't be shocking if Cleveland decided to keep him around. Still, it'd definitely be encouraging to see solid defense from him down the stretch.

Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao's Health

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    Cleveland could be in trouble if Varejao and Irving don't return almost immediately.
    Cleveland could be in trouble if Varejao and Irving don't return almost immediately.David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    You'd be hard-pressed to find a team with more nagging, day-to-day injuries than the Cavaliers. The health of their players, Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao in particular, will go a long way toward determining whether they sneak into the postseason.

    According to a Cavaliers' press release, Irving has been cleared for full-contact practice, but his game status has yet to be determined.

    Varejao, who has a right AC joint sprain, has been ruled out for the April 2 game against the Orlando Magic, but there's nothing beyond that at this point.

    The Cavs just don't have any depth right now. With Varejao and Irving out, the team's down to just seven legitimate rotation players. It might be forced to not just play Scotty Hopson but to give him extended burn.

    That's a scary thought for a team desperate to make the playoffs.

    Cleveland has proved that it can survive without (arguably) its two best players, going a combined 10-12 in games where one of the two did not play. But it'll have to do way better than sub-.500 to make the postseason, and if Irving and Varejao miss more than a game or two, what slim chance they have probably goes out the window.

     

    All statistics accurate as of 4/1/2014 and courtesy of NBA.com unless specifically stated otherwise.

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