Cleveland Cavaliers stars LeBron James and Kyrie Irving sat out Monday’s overtime loss to the Miami Heat, a result which, coupled with the Celtics’ win over the Nets, gave Boston a one-game lead over Cleveland for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics can clinch the top spot and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs with a win or a Cavaliers loss on Wednesday, the final day of the regular season, but Charles Barkley suggested Cleveland might actually prefer to finish second because it means they would avoid the mighty Washington Wizards until the Eastern Conference finals.
“I think it’s actually going to be better for the Cavaliers, believe it or not,” Barkley said Monday on TNT’s Inside the NBA. “Because I think they would rather be the number two seed. That’s just my personal opinion. When you look at these teams, the only team, in my opinion — this is just me, I don’t have any inside information — I think they’d rather not play the Wizards in the second round.”
“Really!? You think the Cavaliers are worried about the Washington Wizards?” co-host Kenny Smith asked.
“I’m saying this,” Barkley said. “The only team in my opinion who can beat — I don’t know if they can beat them — who thinks they have the confidence to beat the Cavaliers is the Wizards. So, if Boston gets number one, [the Celtics] would play the Wizards in the second round.”
The Wizards are locked into the fourth seed and will play the Hawks or Bucks in the first round. The winner of that series will play the East’s top seed in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“I’m not saying I’m right, I’m just telling you my personal opinion,” Barkley said. “Because think about this: If [the Cavaliers] lose [Monday], more than likely Boston is going to get [the No. 1 seed]. All they have to do is stay tied with the Celtics and they get the No. 1 seed, which means they will play the Wizards in the second round of the playoffs. But think about this, after they lost [Sunday], they’re resting LeBron, Kyrie, and Tristan Thompson’s not playing, so they don’t care about losing. It’s a must-win for Miami, so [the Cavaliers] clearly don’t care. This is my personal opinion, I think they would rather play Toronto [in the second round].”
After James and Irving played 47 and 45 minutes, respectively, in an overtime loss to the Hawks on Sunday, James was asked about the importance of winning the Eastern Conference.
“For me, it’s never been about trying to get the number one seed, it’s just trying to play as great a basketball as you can every single night and whatever happens, happens,” he said. “Obviously the last 10 games, I think we’re 5-5. We’ve had some good moments, we’ve had some not-so-good moments, obviously with today. The best thing for our team is we want to go down the stretch and be healthy. If we’re healthy, we can put a game plan together and compete against anybody in the postseason.”
TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal echoed that opinion on Monday.
“When you have the championship mentality, it doesn’t matter where you start,” O’Neal said. “They’ve won championships starting at, what, number six, number seven? They don’t care. They just want to be healthy and rested down the stretch. Number one, number two, it don’t matter to the Cleveland Cavaliers, because like you guys said, LeBron puts fear in people’s hearts.”
While Barkley reiterated that he isn’t convinced anyone in the East can dethrone the Cavaliers and deny James his seventh consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, he said the Wizards are the one team “cocky enough and confident enough” to do it.
The Cavaliers went 2-1 against the Wizards during the regular season and are 3-0 against Toronto entering the teams’ final matchup of the regular season on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers went 0-4 against the Bulls, who hold the tiebreaker over the Heat for the eighth spot.