The Cleveland Cavaliers struggled mightily toward the end of the regular season, going 11-15 over their final 26 games. They’re still favored to win the East, but the Cavs (51-31) need to be dominant in the first round of the playoffs, right? They need to sweep the Pacers and play with the swagger that they showed for much of last season, no?
Isiah Thomas doesn’t think so.
“They don’t have to be dominant in the first round against the Pacers,” the NBA Hall of Famer said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “This is the ideal matchup for them because offensively they can just overwhelm the Pacers. Defensively is where they’re always going to struggle, in my opinion, in this postseason. Last year in the postseason, defense is where they were the most dominant. It’s hard to turn it on and turn it off. We always measure NBA players by the offensive end, and you can turn on the offense. But the thing you have a difficult turning on is defense. Defensive rhythm, defensive intensity, defensive passion and energy, all those things are played at a higher rate of repetition in terms of your output, your energy output. And the physicality you have to exert on the defensive side of the ball, it does tax you. It does make you tired, it does fatigue you – and then it shows up on the offensive side.
“What will get Cleveland, I think, in the end, is stamina,” Thomas continued. “Will they be in shape enough to really ramp up the defensive end and sustain it? We saw last year that they were – to the point that, at the end of the game, we saw Kevin Love shut down Steph Curry in a game-winning situation out on the perimeter where he had to slide his feet. They played with great defensive energy and stamina last year. I don’t know if they’re in shape enough to turn on the defensive stamina that they’re going to need.”
In truth, the Cavs should make short work of the Pacers (42-40). A potential second-round matchup with Toronto (51-31), however, wouldn’t be as easy.
“(The Cavs) have the most talent,” Thomas said, “but the team that I think could give them the most problems and probably upset them is Toronto. In adding (Serge) Ibaka and adding (P.J.) Tucker, they can bring the physicality to the game that no other team in the East can bring to Cleveland. Their back line is big and physical, and also when you look at (Kyle) Lowry and you look at (DeMar) DeRozan – DeRozan has had a spectacular year. So point for point, he can match up with LeBron James in terms of scoring 25 to 30 points in a game. . . . When you look at talent-for-talent, Cleveland arguably has the best talent because they have LeBron James. But the second-best talented team in the East is the Toronto Raptors. . . . I do believe that Toronto can go to Cleveland and win a game.”
Looking out West, Thomas doesn’t see the Warriors encountering much resistance on their way to the Finals.
“There are really no defensive challenges for them,” Thomas said. “They have so much offense that I don’t know if teams can keep up with them offensively. Defensively, there’s only one team out there that really gets down and is kind of gritty and that can really shut you down defensively, and that’s San Antonio. But at the point guard position, they have no answer for Curry. So I don’t necessarily see Golden State having too many problems out West.”
Thomas doesn’t even give Houston a chance, James Harden heroics and all.
“If you get into a shootout with Curry, Durant and Thompson, you’re not going to win that,” Thomas said, chuckling. “I mean, i’s just not going to happen. It’ll be great entertainment; it’ll be a great show. But at the end of the day, they’re going to win that show. So I don’t see anyone defensively really challenging Golden State and making them play a different way than they’re accustomed to playing.”
Thomas also weighed in the Knicks, albeit diplomatically given his time with the organization. Brandon Tierney, a Knicks fan, believes that Carmelo Anthony should get moved this offseason, but Thomas hopes he doesn’t.
“This is just me being a fan of Carmelo and also knowing him, (but) I really do hope he is (still in New York),” Thomas said. “The reason why I say that is he’s been nothing but professional while he’s been there. He’s been a pro’s pro, and regardless of the situation, No. 7 puts on a jersey every single night, he walks out on the floor and he plays. And that is very difficult to do. There are some guys that just lay down and quit on you during a bad season, when things aren’t going well. They don’t come out, they don’t play. He puts on a uniform every night and he comes out and he gives his all. Just a couple years ago, he was being talked about as the MVP of the league and they were winning the division and they were going deep into the playoffs. As I sad, I’m a fan. He gave us good years, some of his best years, his prime years. He came here and he tried to win. I don’t think he laid down on the Knicks or the Knicks’ fans one day, so I respect that.”