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by Ben Leibowitz
The Cleveland Cavaliers are the clear-cut favorites to win the Eastern Conference and head back to the NBA Finals. But while fans, pundits and sportsbooks give Cleveland the best odds to escape the East in 2016, should Eastern Conference opponents fear the Cavaliers?
There may actually be more clout to the contrary, as a number of Eastern Conference contenders have played the Cavs tough throughout 2015-16.
To be sure, there's reason to believe the Cavaliers will be a more motivated (and more dangerous) group once the postseason rolls around. However, their record against a variety of teams in the East throughout the regular season doesn't hint they're an unbeatable juggernaut.
LeBron James and Co. have owned the Indiana Pacers, and they won their lone matchup against the Atlanta Hawks back in November, but every other team in the conference fighting for a playoff spot has defeated the Cavs at least once.
Three teams currently sitting in the playoff picture (as of March 23, prior to games played) boast winning records against the reigning Eastern Conference champs. This week's Data Dimes will break down those three squads who may not have to be wary of the current No. 1 seed.
Toronto Raptors (2-1 vs. Cleveland)
As it stands, the Raptors sit a mere 2.5 games back of the Cavaliers for the conference's top seed. Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue will reportedly prioritize resting his players over gunning for the top seed, so there's a chance Toronto could overtake the lead in the standings before the season comes to a close. Provided the Cavs have lost both contests played north of the border, home-court advantage could be a bigger deal than Lue is advertising.
In any case, the standings from No. 3 on down are made up of teams jockeying for position, while Toronto and Cleveland remain well ahead of the pack. If these teams meet in the postseason setting, it will likely have to be in the Eastern Conference Finals. Kyle Lowry would relish that opportunity, as he's shredded the Cavaliers like wet tissue paper in three meetings against them.
The All-Star point guard is averaging 31 points per game this season when facing off against Cleveland. That's his second-highest average against an opponent in 2015-16 -- he averages 34.5 points against the Golden State Warriors (think this guy gets up for big games?). He's scored in bunches against the Cavaliers, matching his volume with masterful efficiency. He's shooting 66 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from three-point range versus the East's best team.
Additionally, Lowry dishes out an average of 8.3 assists when facing the Cavs, while limiting his turnovers to 0.7 per game. He's simply been outstanding against James' crew.
Granted, Toronto's two wins against Cleveland this season have come by a combined six points. Sandwiched around a 22-point loss to the Cavs, and with so much dependency on Lowry playing like a MonStar, the Raps definitely cannot rest on their laurels.
A return from swingman DeMarre Carroll will no doubt aid Toronto's depth, but if they finish with the No. 2 or No. 1 seed, the Raptors will have to dispatch two teams en route to (presumably) facing the Cavs.
Miami Heat (2-1 vs. Cleveland)
The first of Miami's two wins against the Cavs this season occurred without King James on the court. In the second W -- a wire-to-wire victory for the Heat -- Miami was without Chris Bosh. It's tough to get a fair gauge on this matchup given those key variables, but the fact remains Miami is 2-1 against the reigning Eastern Conference champs this season.
In Miami's victory over the Cavs on March 19, a balanced offensive attack was the catalyst. Five players scored in double figures, including rookie Josh Richardson and new addition Joe Johnson. As usual, though, it was Dwyane Wade who led the charge offensively.
The veteran guard has enjoyed facing off against his former teammate's squad. Wade averaged 22.7 points on 56.5 percent shooting from the field in his three meetings against Cleveland this season.
Success from the face of the franchise obviously will continue to determine success for the team as a whole, but what makes the Heat so dangerous is their collective output. Luol Deng's veteran presence, Hassan Whiteside's budding potential, Johnson shooting 56.1 percent from beyond the arc since signing in South Beach … Miami has a multitude of weapons that can beat you. Of course, the play of Goran Dragic may ultimately be the most decisive wildcard. The Heat are 8-2 this season in games when "The Dragon" scores at least 20 points.
Health is always going to be a factor with an older squad (and it's yet to be determined if Bosh can return this season), but it would be foolish to overlook Miami's chances at putting a scare into the Cavs come playoff time.
Chicago Bulls (2-1 vs. Cleveland)
A lot has changed since the season-opener when Pau Gasol blocked James' would-be, game-tying layup -- Jimmy Butler then swatted away the ensuing entry pass to clinch a Bulls win. Each roster has adapted and iterated in the face of injuries and coaching changes -- Chicago getting used to Fred Hoiberg's presence, Cleveland opting to part ways with David Blatt.
But the one constant between these two squads is the elite matchup between James and upstart Jimmy Butler.
Not only has Butler blossomed into Chicago's leading scorer, but he's also tasked himself with defending the opposing team's best perimeter player on a game-to-game basis. When that assignment is James, surmising that Butler will have his hands full is a gross understatement.
And yet, even when Butler gets tasked with tracking James on defense, his offense hasn't wavered. He's averaging 18.5 points against Cleveland while draining 40 percent of his threes and 46.7 percent of his shots overall. Couple that with defensive possessions like this, and there's certainly reason to believe the Bulls have dark horse potential.
As is the case with Miami, health of the roster heading into the postseason remains a prevalent X-factor. But if Butler and the Bulls nab the No. 8 seed in the East and face the Cavaliers in Round 1, Cleveland will be in for a brutally tough early test.
Everyone seems to be penciling the Cavs into the NBA Finals once again, but their march to the season's final showdown will be far from a cakewalk in 2016.
Article: Courtesy Point After
NBA Basketball: "Should East Teams Actually Fear the Cavaliers?"