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Cavaliers, Bulls push for playoffs in East after drought

by Noah Trister

The Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t played the playoffs since 1998 without LeBron James.

This season, they at least made sure to secure a place in the playing cycle after an impressive turnaround.

The ten teams in the Eastern Conference that will qualify beyond the 82-game regular season have already been named. The only thrill left is determining the rankings – and which teams will avoid playing and go straight to the playoffs. Chicago, Toronto and Cleveland, who finished 11th, 12th and 13th in the conference last season, are now vying for the top six.

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

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

The Cavaliers went 22-50 last season, but would finish 2021-22 with a winning record. Cleveland has the fifth-best defensive ranking in the league this season, having finished 25th a year ago. It wasn’t too long for the Cavs, who have lost six of their last eight games and look destined for the role of play.

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

Cavs still have Kevin Love, a veteran link for the Cavs 2016, but younger players like Jarrett Allen and Darius Garland and rookie Evan Mobley and Lauri Markkanen really helped drive that improvement.

Markkanen went to Cleveland from Chicago on an unofficial deal, but the Bulls would have been fine without him, moving up the rankings after going 31-41 a season ago. A big new addition, DeMar DeRozan, has a career average of 28 points per match, which helps change the bulls’ outlook considerably.

Chicago’s defense has already declined since last season, but its offensive rating has improved from 21st in the league to 11th. DeRozan in overtime win over Los Angeles Clippers Thursday night. DeRozan said a missed free throw late in the fourth quarter left him frustrated, but the Bulls took the game anyway.

“I think he gets really angry all the time, to be very honest,” said coach Billy Donovan. “I think he maintains such a high level, 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 home. The Bulls then host Charlotte before playing in Minnesota to finish the regular season.

Toronto finished with home matches against Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Houston, followed by a match in New York against the Knicks.

The Cavaliers need help from the out-of-town scoreboard to avoid playing, and even though they have a win-win game Tuesday night in Orlando. Then they play in Brooklyn and at home against Milwaukee.

Other races

The top seed in the East is still within reach, with Miami (51-28) hoping to outpace Boston (49-30), Milwaukee (48-30) and Philadelphia (48-30). The Heat will play two home games against Charlotte and Atlanta before a trip to Orlando. Milwaukee host Boston on Thursday night, but it remains to be seen if either of these teams still have a chance in the top seed by then.

Among the top ten in the East, the biggest break between any two of them is three games, so there’s still a lot of uncertainty, even if all but those 10 teams have already been eliminated. This is very different from West, where Phoenix (62-16) took first while Memphis (55-23) took second.

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Follow Noah Trister at https://twitter.com/noahtrister

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