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Cavaliers open playoffs vs. Indiana

By JOE VARDON • Apr 13, 2018 at 1:21 AM

CLEVELAND — There are 29 other NBA teams. The Cavaliers drew the one owner Dan Gilbert insulted for a first-round opponent.

During a summer press conference, after new general manager Koby Altman answered a question about a potential trade with the Indiana Pacers for Paul George that fell through, Gilbert followed up with: "I will say that Indiana could've done better than it did."

Rather than trade George to the Cavs on draft day in a deal that would've meant Kevin Love going to Denver and the Pacers getting Gary Harris and other pieces, Indiana backed out and instead sent George to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.

Naturally, Oladipo enjoyed a breakout season, the Pacers beat the Cavs three out of four times and seem to pose a tough matchup in this Eastern Conference playoff opener. The Cavaliers are the No. 4 seed and the Pacers No. 5, with Game 1 scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Sunday in Cleveland.

For as unfortunate as a coincidence as this may seem, Gilbert's off-handed, throw-away one liner that could come back to bite him ranks about 38th on the Cavs' list of crazy this season.

The litany of trials and tribulations, scandals and scoundrels, injuries and illnesses to befall this team made this the, well, craziest of seasons anyone on the Cavs can remember.

"As the Land Turns is what I call it," coach Tyronn Lue said, referring to the soap opera by a similar title.

The Cavs' list of crazy

If you think Gilbert's unintended bulletin-board material, gift wrapped months ago for the Cavs' eventual first-round opponent, is a harbinger of trouble to come, don't be so sure.

For it's been a season of stranger things, and none has sunk them yet.

"Through all the craziness and the different moving parts and moving pieces, I thought we did a good job of just staying together," Lue said Wednesday, after the Cavs' season-ending 110-98 loss to the Knicks. "All of that is behind us now and I just want to look forward to going into the playoffs."

Not so fast, coach. To appreciate where this team stands now — a No. 4 seed, 50 regular-season wins, homecourt advantage in the first round, a healthy LeBron James and a shot at a fourth straight Finals — we must first consider the depths from where the Cavaliers came.

Let's see. They traded Kyrie Irving for a boatload of players and picks, including two-time All-Star Isaiah Thomas. All that remains from that trade with Boston is rookie Ante Zizic and Brooklyn's first-round pick.

Figuring the time he missed rehabbing his injured hip, Thomas lasted a month in Cleveland.Seven players started at point guard this season.

The Cavs traded six players at the trade deadline. That's about half the active roster for any game.

Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade used to play for this team. Rose got hurt, quit the team. Went to the tropics. Got married. Came back. Barely played.

Wade is literally one of James' best friends. And they traded him.

There was a team meeting that destroyed the team. Irreconcilable differences created in the heated exchange that began Jan. 22 when Thomas and Wade called out Love for missing a game and a practice because he was sick, with no further explanation.

Turns out, Love's been dealing with panic attacks. Oh, and he missed 21 games with a broken bone in his left hand. They went 11-10 without him.

Lue, well, he was so sick all season that he figures there's more than 20 games he shouldn't have coached. He finally stepped away March 19 and missed 10 games. Of course the Cavs went ahead and won nine of them.

JR Smith chucked a bowl of soup at an assistant coach and rediscovered his shooting stroke when he met a therapy dog in Charlotte.

Tristan Thompson. Oh boy.

Does that even cover it all? Does it matter? How is it, again, that this team is still standing? At all?

"I have no idea," James said. "I've just tried to keep everything above sea level. Keep everybody in tune."

The Cavaliers have LeBron

Well, yes, the Cavs are where they are because James played every single game and enjoyed (almost inarguably) the best of his 15 regular seasons.

"They've got LeBron," Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said last week. "We can almost like all leave after that sentence."

James went over 2,000 points, 700 rebounds, and 700 assists for the season. Eighteen triple doubles and 52 double doubles. Career highs in rebounds and assists. League leader in total points and clutch scoring. At age 33.

James was the only player to average at least 25 points (27.5), eight rebounds (8.6) and nine assists (9.1) and shoot at least .500 from the field.

Consider all the aforementioned tumult, and then remember the Cavs once won 13 straight and 18 of 19 games, and then finished the season with 11 wins out of the last 14 games.

"They're always going to be tough to beat anytime LeBron is on the court," Washington coach Scott Brooks said. "He's the best player in the league. You always have a chance to win every game when you have the best player in the league."

The New Kids

The Cavs look almost nothing like the team that went to the Finals for a third straight season last year, let alone the team that won it all in 2016.

They aim to start three different players next to James and Love (George Hill and Jeff Green for sure, maybe Rodney Hood — if so then none were even on the team last year). Two rotation players — Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. — have never played a playoff game.

Actually, since the Cavs made all those trades on Feb. 8, acquiring Clarkson, Nance, Hood and Hill, they've yet to play a game with all players available. If it happens in Game 1 against the Pacers, it would be a first.

Doesn't quite sound like a winning formula for the playoffs. This team doesn't know each other.

Lue hasn't quite said it in so many words, but he believes the Cavs are going back to the Finals anyway.

"I think having LeBron James, that's one factor and Kevin Love, I think those two guys," Lue said. "LeBron being the best player in the world and being able to lead by example I think those two guys early on since they're starting a game they can really set the tone for our new guys that's coming in so that's what gives me the confidence going into the playoffs."

Love missed 23 games to injury, but averaged 17.6 points and a team-best 9.3 rebounds. He was the league's only player to average at least nine rebounds and make 125 3-pointers.

LeBron's time to shine

James is trying to become the sixth player in NBA history to have gone to at least eight consecutive Finals. Never mind that for now. Look at what he does in the first round.

For starters, he's a perfect 12-0 in first round series, tying an NBA record (Shaquille O'Neal).

James' teams have won 21 straight games in the opening round (including a 4-0 sweep of the Pacers last April). He hasn't lost a game in the first round since May 6, 2012, and his overall first-round record (45-7, .873 winning percentage) is the best all time.

"We've got a chance," James said, when asked if he thought the Cavs could win a championship. "We're one of 16 teams that have a chance to win a championship. That's all you can ask for."

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