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First Two Weeks Back from All-Star Break Provide Cavs a Good Test

The Cavaliers return to action Thursday night at home against the Chicago Bulls. This kicks off a two-week stretch in which the Cavs face seven teams that have given them trouble this season.

Five of these seven teams would make the playoffs if the regular season ended today.

The Cavs combined record against these seven teams up to this point in the season in 13 games is 7-6. Keep in mind two of the teams would not make the playoffs if the season ended today and five of these teams are the sixth-seed or lower in their conference.

Let’s go through the list chronologically of who the Cavs have to face in the next 11 days.

First up, it’s the Chicago Bulls. The Cavs are 0-2 vs Chicago. The Bulls currently hold the seventh-seed in the East. The Bulls defeated Cleveland in the regular season opener in the Windy City 97-95. It’s important to note Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert were injured, Chicago is not an easy environment to go into, and although the Cavs only lost by two, they were fighting an uphill battle most of the night, trying to climb back.

The Bulls are the same team that took the Cavs six games in the 2015 playoffs (while Kevin Love was hurt) and their tough defense makes them a bit of a throwback team compared to most.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Cavs met the Bulls in a first or second-round matchup in the 2016 Playoffs. And if it looks anything like the Cavs-Bulls matchup on January 23rd, it could not end well for Cleveland.

January 23rd was Tyronn Lue’s NBA Head Coaching debut. And it could not have gone any worse. It was a hyped-up national TV game on ABC. All the talk around town about the firing of David Blatt led up to the game. And the Cavs laid an egg. Chicago blew them out 96-83 and the score was misleading because the Cavs were never really within striking distance at any point of the game.

Pau Gasol torched the Cavs, scoring 25 points. He is a player that the Cavs don’t seem to have an answer for defensively. Love is not known for playing well on that end of the floor and Chicago will look to exploit that matchup whenever they play the Cavs.

Another key factor in the Bulls’ win in Cleveland was Jimmy Butler, who is turning into a superstar. He held LeBron James to just 11-of-27 shooting on the night. Any time a team does that, they have a good chance of beating the Cavs. It’s also worth pointing out that Irving, who the Cavs sorely missed in the season opener loss to Chicago, only scored 11 points when he did face them. Chalk it up as an off night, I guess.

The Cavs did use that loss to propel them to a five-game win-streak and seemed to right the ship. But nevertheless, 0-2 against a team in your own division that you may very well have to get through to get to the championship is not the way a championship team is supposed to play.

The good news for the Cavs on Thursday, February 18th is that Butler is injured. A loss at home against Chicago without their best player would be inexcusable. If the Cavs are 0-3 against the Bulls after Thursday, it’s obviously not a good sign. The Bulls’ style of play and the mismatch created by Gasol is something to watch for even without Butler on the floor. And you never know when Derrick Rose is going to find lightning in a bottle and turn back the clock.

Regardless, LeBron should shoot for a better percentage than the last meeting. Butler held LeBron to 46 percent shooting in the two matchups, but even more important is LeBron threw up 49 shots in those two games. That’s not a formula for success.

It’s fair to expect Irving to score more than 11 points in Thursday’s matchup and the Cavs can ease some concerns with a convincing win to open up the unofficial second half of the season. Love is coming into play shooting 12-for-41 in his last four games, or 29 percent. He has scored 12 points or less in each of those four games, so obviously he’s looking to get back on track after a tumultuous All-Star Break full of rumors. Once again, if the Cavs are 0-3 against Chicago after Thursday, it’s a problem.

The next game is perhaps more intriguing. The Cavs travel to Oklahoma City to take on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The first meeting between these two teams was a great wire-to-wire game. It was just before Irving returned and LeBron had one of his best performances of the 2015-2016 season.

The Cavs won the December 18th meeting 104-100 in a nail-biter. LeBron scored 33 points with nine rebounds, and 11 assists. Westbrook and Durant combined for 52 points and Serge Ibaka had a big night, scoring 23 points.

Love only scored 11, something that has become a trend against some of the elite teams this season. LeBron practically carried the team on his back in this win against OKC, shooting 12-for-27 from the field.

Since that meeting, the Thunder have won 23 of their last 28 games. Cleveland has won 21 of their last 28. These teams appear to be evenly-matched, and the game being played in OKC could give a slight edge to the Thunder. But the fact that Irving did not play in the first matchup will certainly play a factor.

A loss on the road to one of the top four teams in the league would not be a cause for concern, but winning a big game like this could make a bit of a statement with just under two months left in the season.

The Cavs are 1-3 against Golden State and San Antonio, so going 2-0 vs OKC would be a great sign.

After the Thunder game, the Cavs return to Cleveland to face the Detroit Pistons the next night.

The Pistons are an up and coming team, who just traded for Tobias Harris. Harris should make them a better all-around team. The duo of Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond has Detroit in the playoff hunt this season, as right now the Pistons sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, just a half game behind Charlotte for the eight-seed.

The first meeting between the Cavs and Pistons was early in the season in Detroit. Irving was still hurt. But the Cavs had this game in the bag after three quarters and blew a fourth-quarter lead. The Pistons are not a bad team, but a team with championship hopes like the Cavs should not have had that type of meltdown, even without their star point guard and Shumpert.

The next meeting was in Detroit, as well, and the Cavs put on a show. On January 29th, Cleveland won 114-106, letting Detroit creep back into the game late, but it was never in doubt. It was one of Love’s best games as a Cavalier, as he scored 29 points on the night.

Let’s hope the Cavs look more like that team than the one that collapsed on November 17th. It’s worth noting that the meeting on Monday, February 22nd will be the second night of a back-to-back, so hopefully they still have the energy to play hard. If the Cavs are 1-2 against Detroit, I would consider that a problem for a team that believes it can win a championship.

Wednesday night the Cavs host a team similar to Detroit, the Charlotte Hornets. The Cavs split the first two meetings in Charlotte this season, but the most recent loss there was one of the most inexcusable losses of the season.

We’ll start with their first meeting with the Hornets on November 27th in Charlotte. The Hornets played the Cavs hard, but Cleveland pulled out a 95-90 win. The Hornets were hot at the time, winning four in a row prior to the matchup with the Cavs, playing some of their best basketball of the season.

The Cavs had no Kyrie or Shumpert, but LeBron scored 25 and Love had a big night with 18 points and 16 boards. It was a hard-fought game and an encouraging win against a team that was off to a good start, especially when they played at home, where they were 7-1 on the season up to that point.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago in Charlotte. February 3rd. The Hornets had lost two of their last three, all of which were games against sub. 500 teams.

Charlotte was without arguably their two best players, Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson.

It was no matter, as backup point guard Jeremy Lin provided some “Lin-sanity” in Charlotte, scoring 24 points, and the Hornets crushed the Cavs 106-97. Although it was only a nine-point game, the second half completely belonged to the Hornets and the Cavs were outrebounded 49-28 on the night. Rookie Frank Kaminsky scored 15 points off the bench, one of his better games of the season.

It would be one thing if the Cavs lost on the road to a healthy Hornets team with Walker and Jefferson, but to play that bad against a depleted roster is not something indicative of a team ready to win a championship.

So, the Wednesday, February 22nd matchup in Cleveland will be important for the Cavs to show that they are the number one team in the East when they play the number eight Hornets. That game should look like it from start to finish.

Moving on to Friday, February 24th; the Cavs head out on the road for a possible Eastern Conference Finals preview. The Toronto Raptors.

The Raptors are one of the hottest teams in the league, but they’ve been consistent all season.

The first matchup between Cleveland and Toronto was north of the border on November 25th. It was a close game that went down the wire and Kyle Lowry had a great night, scoring 27 points. The other half of the dynamic dinosaur duo, DeMar DeRozan added 20 points in the win.

That’s not necessarily a loss to hold against the Cavs because Cleveland was without Irving and Shumpert, on the road, and the Raptors have proven to be one of the top five or six teams in the league this season. It is something to take notice of, however, because this could be the team the Cavs face in the Eastern Conference Finals.

When the two teams met in Cleveland in January, the Cavs cruised to a convincing 122-100 victory. It was one of Irving’s best games of the season, as he scored 25 points. The Raptors hung with the Cavs for most of the first three quarters, but late in the third, Cleveland pulled away and never looked back.

Something to remember from that meeting is that Toronto was without starting center Jonas Valanciunas, who might not be viewed as one of the top big men in the league, but certainly makes a difference when he’s on the floor.

This matchup in Toronto on February 24th will be a great measuring stick for both teams. They are both as healthy as they have been at any point in the 2015-2016 season.

Toronto bounced back from that 22-point loss in Cleveland by winning 11 straight games and has won 14 of their last 16 as of February 18th.

They are currently three games behind the Cavs for the number one seed in the East, with the fifth-best record in the entire NBA.

If the Cavs can go into Toronto and win on their home floor, it’ll be another statement win. Especially if they can do the same to OKC a few days before that.

If the Cavs are 1-2 against the team breathing down their neck for first-place in the East, it would be reasonable to wonder if Toronto has a good shot of dethroning them.

After the Friday night game in Toronto, the Cavs travel to Washington D.C. for a Sunday afternoon game. The Cavs split their first two games against the Wizards.

The first one was an embarrassment. One of the two or three worst losses of the season. The Cavs came into play on December 1st with a record of 9-0 at home. They were without Irving, but the Wizards weren’t off to a great start, entering play with a record of 6-8 overall.

It wasn’t just that the Cavs lost to the Wizards, but they were straight up demolished, 97-85, in a game that was not even that close. John Wall scored 35 points with 10 assists, dominating the entire night.

It just looked like the Cavs didn’t want to show up that night. Those games will happen in the course of a season, but what was troubling was that the Cavs had two days to rest beforehand, so it couldn’t have been that they were tired.

The Cavs played more like the team we expected to see in the next meeting with Washington, as Irving showed why he is one of the elite point guards in the league and scored 32 points en route to the 121-115 victory on January 6th. LeBron scored 34.

That win made the Cavs 1-1 vs the Wizards, but the Wizards are 23-28 this season, on the outside looking in at the playoff picture.

Teams like the Wizards, Hornets, and Pistons are not teams that a championship contender should be going .500 against. If anything maybe a slip-up here or there, and a 4-2 or 5-1 record would be expected. But 3-3 against the bottom half of teams in the conference is troubling if you want to measure this team by championship standards.

The final game of this 11-day, seven-game stretch features the Cavs and the Indiana Pacers. It’s the last game of the month of February, on the 29th in Cleveland.

The two meetings between the Cavs and Pacers this season both went down to the wire. The Cavs won both games, but they did not play their best basketball in either of the games.

The first matchup was November 8th, so the Cavs were without Kyrie and Shumpert. Love had one of his best games as a Cavalier, scoring 22 points, while hauling in 19 rebounds. LeBron scored 29. The rest of the supporting cast did very little, and Paul George kept his Pacers in the ballgame, scoring 32 points on the night. The Cavs would hang on to win 101-97.

They got the win, but it wasn’t pretty.

The next matchup is still fresh, as the Cavs and Pacers squared off on February 1st in Indianapolis. The Cavs were off to a great start, but a terrible third quarter in which they were outscored by the Pacers 30-15, let Indiana climb back and forced the game to overtime.

Kyrie, “Mr. 4th Quarter” was great in the fourth as usual, but especially took over in OT, helping the Cavs win 111-106. Irving scored eight of his 25 total points in OT, and pretty much saved the Cavs from having an embarrassing loss to answer for after the game.

The end result was great, but that third quarter was atrocious, and was part of a trend of the team coming out flat to start the second half.

All’s well that ends well, however, as the Cavs are 2-0 against Indy, despite both games being nail-biters.

So, in conclusion, these next seven games for the Cavs will certainly have interesting storylines behind them. The Cavs are 0-2 vs Chicago, 1-0 vs Oklahoma City, 1-1 vs Detroit, 1-1 vs Charlotte, 1-1 vs Toronto, 1-1 vs Washington, and 2-0 vs Indiana.

That 7-6 record against teams that the Cavs are all better than is something we would like to see improved upon if the Cavs want to assert themselves as a championship-caliber team. It’s worth pointing out that three of these seven games are on the road, including the two toughest games against the Thunder and Raptors.

We’d like to see the Cavs at least split those two against the teams that are close to their level. As for the Washington game, there’s no reason the Cavs should lose that one. The four home games against Chicago, Detroit, Charlotte, and Indiana should be a breeze. Especially when you factor in the injury to Butler for the Bulls. The Bulls game is crucial for Cleveland to win, so they don’t end up 0-3 vs Chicago.

The other three games, I expect nothing worse than 2-1. Maybe they slip up against Detroit or Indiana. The Cavs should look to prove to the Hornets that the terrible performance a couple weeks ago in Charlotte was a fluke and nothing else.

So if the Cavs go 5-2 at worst in this seven-game stretch, I’d say it’s a success. If it’s another 4-3 stretch against the teams that Cleveland is better than record-wise, we’re continuing that trend of not putting away the teams that they should.

If the Cavs go 4-3 in this stretch, they would be 11-9 in 20 games against these seven teams. That’s not championship-caliber. Honestly, 12-8 isn’t really either, but factoring in the injuries to Irving and Shumpert early in the season, a 5-2 stretch or better with a healthy team would be much more convincing that this is the Cavaliers team we all expected to see.

Matt Medley is co-editor at NEO Sports Insiders, covers the Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Indians and high school sports in Northeast Ohio. Follow @MedleyHoops on Twitter for live updates from games.

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