It's an important game -- the teams have matching 50-27 records and the winner would hold a one-game lead for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference with four games remaining for each team. Cleveland would hold the tiebreaker based on conference winning percentage should Boston win tonight and the two teams finish with identical overall records. But the Cavs are in what they've repeatedly shown is a bad spot for them.
They are 1-9 in the second of back-to-back games on the road this season. This is also their fifth game in seven days, coming off a month when they set a franchise record for most road games with 12. Knowing that, it wasn't a surprise for LeBron James to downplay the moment.
"I'm not one to get caught up in regular season big games," said James, who has reached the NBA Finals playing as a No. 2 seed five times in his career. "I've been to six straight Finals; I'm the last person to ask."
It is the Cavs' penultimate back-to-back of the season. There are none of those challenging sets in the playoffs and that could be especially relevant when evaluating this team. Fatigue has seemed to be a significant opponent this season, which James and coach Tyronn Lue have referenced recently by saying the team looks "slow." Simply put, when the Cavs aren't rested, they have been awful.
Perhaps it's because they're the second-oldest team in the league; perhaps it's because James has skipped the second night of a back-to-back four times; perhaps it's a focus issue. Whatever it is, when the Cavs don't have rest they aren't even a playoff team, much less a championship contender.
ESPN Stats and Information collected the numbers and they tell the tale.
When the Cavs are playing with zero days of rest, they score 108 points per 100 possessions, which is a respectable ninth in the league. They allow 112 points, which is a woeful 27th. They have issues defending the pick-and-roll and in transition in the best of times -- Lue has been in a season-long search mode to find schemes that work in balancing the floor so they're better able to get back on defense. When their legs are heavy, it can get ugly.
It gets even worse after a flight. When the Cavs are on the road for a back-to-back, they allow 113 points per 100 possessions and get outscored by 11 points per 100 possessions. Since many games these days are right around 100 possessions, that means playing the Cavs on the back end has been nearly a guaranteed blowout for the home team.
If James doesn't play in those spots, forget it -- the Cavs get outscored by 18 points per 100 possessions. It's a slaughter.
There are a few reasons why the Cavs have struggled since the All-Star break, but a big one is they're about to play their sixth back-to-back in the past five weeks.
Give the Cavs some rest, though, and you rediscover the elite team that remains in contention for the East's top seed. When the Cavs have at least one day off, they're 43-17, the third-best record in those situations in the league behind the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.
They score 112 points per 100 possessions, second-best in the NBA, as their shooters have their legs. Scoring engines James and Kyrie Irving, unsurprisingly, improve with a little rest.
All of James' numbers are better no matter how you break them up. He averages one more rebound and two more assists with one day of rest versus back-to-backs and his free throw percentage is five points higher with a day off.
It's more glaring with Irving. He averages 21.7 points on the second night of back-to-backs and 26.1 points when he has one or two days' rest. His 3-point percentage jumps from 33 percent to 41 percent with the day or two of rest.
"It's a fine line," Lue said. "You want to go into the playoffs healthy and rested, but if you can get home-court, you want that too. We're great at home."
Indeed they are. After sweeping a three-game homestand with a 122-102 win over the Orlando Magic on Tuesday, the Cavs are now 31-8 at home, tied for second-best in the league. The rest guaranteed by the playoffs and possible home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs seem to be rather valuable in the postseason.
The Cavs could end up looking more like the team that was 28-8 at one point this season and not the team that has lost 11 of its past 21 games as it manages a road-heavy schedule with few days off.
"I'm glad we get to see [the Celtics] again in the regular season and I know they're excited as well," Irving said. "It's great competition and we'll see where we stand."