On Nelly's 2001 hit song "Number One," the St. Louis rapper declares on the chorus, "What does it take to be number one? Two is not a winner, and three nobody remembers."
For the first time sinceNov. 9, 2015, the Cavs are on the wrong side of thatline. After 505 days atop the Eastern Conference, Tyronn Lue's teamdropped below the No. 2 Celticsafter getting shellacked by the Spurs Monday night.
At the start of the new year, the Cavs held a six-game lead over the Celtics, but Boston is nowa half-game ahead with less than 10 games to go for each team in the regular season. The Celtics have gone 10-4 in March while the Cavs have stumbled to 6-9. The East foes meet once more on April 5 at the Boston Garden, a pivotal game considering the Cavs possess a 2-1 advantage in head-to-head matchups.
This is more than a bump in the road the Cavs will suddenly get over— at least in terms of the standings. FiveThirtyEight's NBA prediction model gives the Celtics a whopping 70-percent chance to capture the top seed with Cleveland's odds coming in at 29 percent (The Raptors and Wizards are both virtually out of the race at one and less than one percent, respectively.)
That may have something to do with the schedules. Boston faces opponents with a combined winning percentage of .439 in its remaining eight games. Cleveland's opponents in its final nine games, on the other hand, have a combined .496 winning percentage, and the Cavs battle playoff (or potential playoff)teams in six of their final seven (Pacers, Magic, Celtics, Hawks twice, Heat, Raptors).
So we've established there's a realistic possibility the Celtics trump the Cavs in the East race. The best question, though, may not be, "can the Cavs recapture the one seed?" Rather, might we ask, "Shouldthe Cavs actually care about the No. 1seed?"
The message from Lue and his players the last week or so has been consistent. The standings aren't something they completely ignore, but the focus is on fixing what's wrong.
"I think (the Celtics) definitely have our attention, but whatever happens, it happens," Lue said after a win against the Hornets on Friday."We’re first, we’re second. As long as we’re healthy, we’re great. I told the guys, ‘every series we played in last year, we won on the road.’ You gonna be a championship team, you gotta win on the road anyway … If my team is healthy, we’re gonna be good. We’re gonna be OK."
In the 2016 playoffs, the Cavs completed sweeps againstthe Pistons in the first round and Hawks in the second round on the road, beat the Raptors in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finalsin Toronto and won the title in Game 7 on the road against Golden State, giving the world enough 3-1 jokes about the Warriors for the rest of eternity. The core group knows this team is capable of reaching a higher ceiling than any other East rivals when running at its highest gear, and after the historic comeback last June, there won't be any panic in the locker room.
"Our focus has always been internal, man," Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving said."What we have to fix internally. No disrespect to any other team in the league, but when we’re playing at a high level and we’re all focused and dialed in, we’re a tough team to beat."
The problem there? The Cavs haven't been "dialed in" for a while now. Cleveland has the second-worst defensive efficiencyin the league post All-Star break (113.2) ahead of only the tanking Lakers (113.8). As Sporting News' Sean Deveney noted prior to the Spurs' rout of the Cavs, only 11 teams out of the 92 that have played in the NBA Finals since 1971 have finished outside of the top 10 in defensive efficiency. The Cavs still have a top-five offense but rank 23rd in defensive efficiency over the entire season. And since we mentioned the Cavs' road mentality above, it's important to note they've failed to hold an opponent under 100 points on the road in the new calendar year.
To put this in titleterms,Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver compared the offensive and defensive efficiency numbers for the Cavs and other 2017contenders to NBA champions from the past decade. That's the current Cavs roster way down there in the right corner.
Chart: Comparing offensive + defensive efficiency numbers for Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs + Celtics to NBA champions from 2005 to 2016 pic.twitter.com/8GdmgVlkgS— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) March 28, 2017
All of that is to say, yes, the Cavs have serious work to do on the defensive end after finishing the 2016 season in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency and establishing a physical style, particularly in the Finals against the Warriors. Still, LeBron James and Co. aren't looking at that little number next to their name.
"(Boston being close in the standings) doesn’t matter," James said."Nothing is promised at the end of the day. You gotta work for whatever you want. It’s all part of the process."
Indeed, the No. 1 seed doesn't promise anything. Out of the 34 Finals teams since 2000, 14entered the postseasonas the top seed, and only three times (2000, 2008, 2016)in that span haveNBA fans seen the East and West's No. 1's battle for a title.
Cavs sharpshooter Kyle Korverknows better than most thatregular-season wins don't guarantee a Finals trip. Korverhasentered the NBA playoffs as a member of the top-seeded squad three times in his career (2010-11 Bulls, 2011-12 Bulls, 2014-15 Hawks), but ironically, he was beaten by James-led teams two of those three times.
"I think (the No. 1 seed) is a goal, it’s important, but it’s notthegoal," Korver told Sporting News."I’ve been the one seed three times going into the playoffs, and I’ve never won a championship. It’s a thing that’s nice to have home court. When you get to a Game 7 and get to play it at home, that’s obviously a big deal. But I think everyone’s prioritizing health and playing our best basketball."
More than anything, health may decide whether the Cavs attempt to chase the Celtics down to the final regular-season game or accept a lower seed. Lue has stated in the past health is the top priority, even going so far as to say it's "crossed mymind" to reststars regardless of how that may affect Cleveland in the standings.
The Cavs have been bitten hard by the injury bug recently. Kevin Love's knee injury last monthput much more offensive weight on James' and Irving's shoulders. Andrew Bogut broke his leg minutes intohis debut in Cleveland. Iman Shumpert missed Monday's game with a knee injury. Korver has been shut down for the week with a left foot issue. James has gotten scratched in the eye and elbowed in the back in the past week, and he's still second in the league in minutes per game (37.5).
As much as NBA commissioner Adam Silver may dislike it, Lue takingthe rest route would not be surprising given the current state of his team. The Cavs still have plenty of issues, but they also have championship experience and James, who has played in the past six NBA Finals series (which still looks ridiculous no matter how many times you read it).
It all comes back to this:Shouldthe Cavs actually care about the one seed? Cleveland is playing for the real No. 1 in the end, the right to hold the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy. And as Nelly told you, that's all anyone remembers, right?