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Cavaliers Putting Themselves in Prime Position Ahead of 2015 NBA Playoffs

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterApril 6, 2015

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

CLEVELAND — LeBron James has viewed this season, his first back in Ohio after four instructive and productive seasons away, as a mentoring exercise as much as a playing one. He's tutored and tested his teammates, trying to let them know, well, what time it is. 

Quite literally, on occasion. 

Such was the case Sunday, during the third quarter of the Cleveland Cavaliers' 99-94 victory over the Chicago Bulls. The win all but assured Cleveland the Central Division title and the second seed in the upcoming Eastern Conference postseason, since it pushed the Cavs' lead to four games with only five to play. 

It was a victory that put Cleveland in the perfect position to contend for a championship—a position preferable to just about every other contender, and unquestionably all of those in the East.  

But first, back to James' latest advice offering, which caused Kyrie Irving to send the sphere skyward,  52 feet from the basket.

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 5:  J.R. Smith #5 and Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate during the game against the Chicago Bulls on April 5, 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees tha
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

With the Cavs leading by 10, James had caught Tristan Thompson's air ball, only for Mike Dunleavy to steal it and then proceed to lose it out of bounds.

The officials initially—and incorrectly—reset the shot clock to 22 seconds, before Danny Crawford reviewed it at the stoppage and alerted James that it would be trimmed down to two seconds. After the inbounds, James went out to set a rip screen on Jimmy Butler, but Irving didn't move. 

Well, let them tell the rest.

"The clock was at 22 for a while," James said. "And as soon as he got the ball, it went to two (seconds)."

"I thought there were 22 seconds instead of two," Irving said. "I'm looking at 'Bron, and 'Bron's looking at me, like, 'Shoot it.' And I was like, 'OK, well, I have to let this thing go.'"

"I just told him to just throw it up there, see what happens," James said. "And it went in."

"Luckily it went in," Irving said. 

There was also some fine fortune on the Cavaliers' other two buzzer-beating three-pointers. Those came at the end of quarters. The first was a corner turnaround from Irving at the end of the first quarter, and the other was a falling-into-a-floor-seat 41-footer from J.R. Smith just before halftime. On both of those, the shooters later insisted that they practice those particular shots, and James even (gasp!) credited coach David Blatt for the play call on the latter. 

"Coach drew up a set to get Kyrie slashing over the top one side, J.R. going the other way, (Iman Shumpert) coming towards the ball, and I just tried to put the ball right on the money where J.R. could catch and still have his momentum and get one off," James said. "And those were two big plays for us tonight." 

They were, but there were less spectacular plays that were equally significant.

James—once again embracing some assignments in the post—registered his first triple-double of the season, Smith made seven other three-pointers (starting 7-of-10 before finishing 8-of-17), Irving had 27 points and four assists, Timofey Mozgov had 11 points and eight rebounds, and even Kevin Love came through, splashing a late three-pointer off a James feed.

But this outing was just a micro example of a macro trend, which has seen the Cavaliers win 31 of their past 38 games, including their past 18 at home. 

For Cleveland, it's about coming around just in time.  

Now, with plenty to spare, they're all but assured to accomplish what, at the outset of the season, was projected as their primary regular-season challenge. That objective was to finish ahead of the Bulls, whose roster initially appeared more well-rounded then and, even after the Cavaliers' effective midseason trades, still compares favorably when at full health.

And while the Bulls have certainly endured more adversity than the Cavaliers when it comes to player absences—Chicago's projected starting lineup is just 15-4 this season—the Cavs have had their own issues to overcome, related to chemistry and scrutiny.

So it is no small feat that they easily beat the buzzer in terms of beating Chicago to the Central Division finishing post.

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 5: Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls guards LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the first half at Quicken Loans Arena on April 5, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Jason Miller/Getty Images

By doing so nearly two weeks prior to the playoffs, they have given themselves palatable options as far as how to handle the final five games. Blatt acknowledged before Sunday's tip that, while he wants his team to keep a rhythm, a victory might cause him to consider more rest.

That's certainly a better situation than coach Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls find themselves in, waiting for Derrick Rose to feel comfortable about returning from his latest knee surgery and then needing to figure out how to integrate him while trying to hold off Toronto and Washington for the East's third seed. 

On Sunday, Thibodeau said Rose would return with a minutes restriction and that "we don't expect him to be great, just run the team." But no one can know for sure how well he'll do that. Or whether he can stay on the floor, forcing Chicago, for the third straight year, to deal with uncertainty as the postseason approaches. 

"Any time you are dealing with injuries, it's how quickly can you adapt for those changes," Thibodeau said. "We've had our starters together for 19 games. But we're heading down the stretch now, so whenever we do get people back, we've got to be ready to move forward right away. We don't want to use that as an excuse. Just get out there, get the job done." 

Is health more important than seeding?

"I think you need both," Thibodeau said. "I think you need to be playing well, and you need to be healthy." 

The Cavaliers are good on both counts right now.

And while they aren't the top seed and won't have home-court advantage in a potential Eastern Conference finals Atlanta, they were humming more than the Hawks even before Paul Millsap injured his shoulder Saturday, simply because they've been forced to play near peak level for the past month.

Predictably, the Hawks lost a little of their edge since beating Cleveland on March 6 and establishing an insurmountable East advantage. With core players in and out of the lineup, Atlanta has gone just 8-7 since that win. And while the Hawks pummeled the Nets on Saturday in a game the organization was motivated to win for pick-swapping reasons, they've otherwise struggled to find their former lethal form. 

The Hawks' season may have been too hot, too soon. 

The Bulls' season still seems stuck in the cold tub, very late in the game. 

The Cavaliers' season?

Like the shots taken and somehow made by Irving and Smith on Sunday, that appears to have been timed just right.

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