Cavaliers and Bulls push for playoffs in the East after droughts | Basketball

By NOAH TRISTER – AP Sportswriter

Since 1998, the Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t made the playoffs without LeBron James.

This season, they are at least assured of a place in the qualifying tournament after an impressive turnaround.

The 10 Eastern Conference teams that will progress past the 82-game regular season are already set. The only suspense left is determining the seeding – and which teams will skip the play-ins and go straight to the playoffs. Chicago, Toronto and Cleveland, which finished 11th, 12th and 13th in the conference last season, are now battling to finish in the top six.

The Bulls (45-33) and Raptors (45-33) are tied for fifth, just above the play-in threshold. The Cavaliers (43-36) are seventh.

Chicago hasn’t made the playoffs since 2017. Cleveland hasn’t since 2018 — before James left the team for the second time. Only Charlotte (2016) has a longer playoff drought in the East, and the Hornets made the play-in last season and have done so again this year.

The Cavaliers went 22-50 a season ago, but they’ll finish 2021-22 with a winning record. Cleveland has the fifth-best defensive rating in the league this season after finishing 25th a year ago. It hasn’t been a great run for the Cavs, who have lost six of their last eight games and appear headed for the playoff round.

“My biggest concern is our habits, and if we’re doing it right,” coach JB Bickerstaff said after a recent win over the New York Knicks. “We do it right, we have enough to win basketball games. So that’s what we focus on, it’s those habits and keep doing the right things and then you let the teams in front of you do that to you. what they have to do.

Cleveland still has Kevin Love, a veteran tied to the 2016 Cavs championship, but younger players like Jarrett Allen, Darius Garland, rookie Evan Mobley and Lauri Markkanen have really contributed to that improvement.

Markkanen went to Cleveland from Chicago in an offseason trade, but the Bulls have done well without him, climbing the standings after going 31-41 a season ago. Their big new addition, DeMar DeRozan, is averaging a career-high 28 points per game, helping to significantly change the Bulls’ outlook.

Chicago’s defense has actually slipped since last season, but its offensive rating has improved from 21st in the league to 11th. DeRozan scored 50 points in an overtime win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night. DeRozan said a missed free throw late in the fourth quarter left him frustrated, but the Bulls still won the game.

“I think he’s really angry all the time, to be quite honest,” coach Billy Donovan said. “I think he holds himself to such a high standard, and I think that’s what makes him a great player.”

Chicago’s next two games are tough — against Milwaukee on Tuesday night and Boston on Wednesday night — but they’re both at home. Next, the Bulls host Charlotte before playing Minnesota to complete the regular season.

Toronto finishes with home games against Atlanta, Philadelphia and Houston, followed by a game in New York against the Knicks.

The Cavaliers need the help of the outside scoreboard to avoid the play-in, and although they have a very winnable game Tuesday night in Orlando. They then play in Brooklyn and at home against Milwaukee.

The East seed is still up for grabs, with Miami (51-28) hoping to hold its own against Boston (49-30), Milwaukee (48-30) and Philadelphia (48-30). The Heat have home games against Charlotte and Atlanta before a trip to Orlando. Milwaukee hosts Boston on Thursday night, but it remains to be seen if any of those teams still have a shot at being the No. 1 seed by then.

Among the top 10 spots in the East, the biggest separation between any two of them is three games, so there is still a lot of uncertainty, even though everyone but those 10 teams have already been eliminated. It’s very different from the West, where Phoenix (62-16) got the top seed and Memphis (55-23) locked down No. 2.

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