Despite defeating the Atlanta Hawks 128-105 on Tuesday, Nov. 28, in the final Group Play game of the inaugural In-Season Tournament (IST), the Cleveland Cavaliers were unable to advance to the quarterfinals of the IST. By missing out, two games were added to the Cavs’ schedule, giving Cleveland a tricky five-game stretch at the beginning of December.
These next five games for the Cavs are a difficult way to start December.
When the 2023-2024 schedule was released, the Cavaliers were slated to head to the "Motor City" to face the Detroit Pistons on Dec. 2, the next week of their schedule was up in the air due to the IST, and then they were set to go on a three-game road trip against the Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics from Dec. 11 to Dec. 14. By missing out on the In-Season Tournament, they now have to host Orlando at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Dec. 6 before heading down to Miami to face the Heat on Dec. 8, creating a tough five-game stretch.
The three-game road trip against Orlando and Boston was already going to be challenging. The Celtics are once again one of the top teams in the league, and the Magic have been one of the biggest surprises in the league thus far.
The Celtics currently hold the top record in the Eastern Conference, and they're a half-game behind the Minnesota Timberwolves for the best record in the league. We knew that the Celtics were once again going to be one of the top teams in the NBA this season. They've got the dynamic duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and they went out and added Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porziņģis over the offseason.
The Celtics have also reached three of the past four Eastern Conference Finals, facing off against the Heat every time. The Cavaliers have not played the Celtics yet this season, but with the changes Boston made over the offseason, Cleveland can see how their new additions match up with Boston’s. Since Cleveland hasn’t seen Boston or Milwaukee yet, they can use these games against the Celtics to see where they measure up against one of the conference’s elite teams.
Nobody told the Orlando Magic that they were supposed to be just a fringe Play-In Tournament team this season. Perhaps the Magic heard what critics said about them and decided to ignore expectations. Either way, the Magic are the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference with a record of 14-6 and defying expectations early on.
Considering the Magic's strong start to the 23-24 campaign, one could surmise that the former No.1 overall pick Paolo Banchero would be their leading scorer. Instead, Orlando's leading scorer is Franz Wagner, who is averaging 20.7 PPG in the early part of the season. Banchero is the Magic's second-leading scorer as he's 19.5 PPG and the leading assist man with 4.8 APG. The Magic have the top-end talent to sustain this surprising run.
Right now, the Magic feel reminiscent of the 2021-22 Cleveland Cavaliers, who started hot at the beginning of the season and hung around the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the Eastern Conference. Then, the Cavs sustained a few injuries and cooled off, causing them to fall into the Play-In Tournament (where they lost to Brooklyn and Atlanta). With teams like the Celtics, Bucks, 76ers, and the Heat still hanging around, the Magic will be hard-pressed to stay at the top of the standings.
Right now, the Magic are the primary disruptors of the tiers that were established in the Eastern Conference last season. With these two matchups in a span of five days, the Cavs have the opportunity to reassert the pecking order. Last season, the Cavs swept the 22-23 season series against the Magic 4-0. But this is a very different Magic team that the Cavaliers will be facing twice in a span of six days - Dec. 6 in Cleveland and Dec. 11 in Orlando.
The Heat already pounded the Cavaliers to the tune of 129-96 in Cleveland on Wednesday, Nov 22. Granted, the Cavaliers were playing on the second night of a back-to-back after beating the Philadelphia 76ers on the road by a score of 122-119 in overtime on Tuesday, Nov. 21, as part of the NBA In-Season Tournament.
In Wednesday night's game, the Heat raced out to an early 16-2 lead and they simply coasted to an easy victory from there despite missing All-Star center Bam Adebayo. Miami guard Kyle Lowry made seven 3-pointers and scored a season-high 28 points. Eight players scored 10 or more points for the Heat in the victory. The leading scorer in that game for the Cavs was Craig Porter Jr., an undrafted rookie from Wichita State. Cleveland will look to right the ship when they visit Miami on Friday.
Last season, the Heat went on a Cinderella-type run en route to the NBA Finals where they fell to the Denver Nuggets in five games. Since the Heat have reached the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the past four seasons, reaching the NBA Finals twice in 2020 and 2023 (though Miami came up short both times), they’ll be a tough opponent on any team’s schedule. They are, of course, led by Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, but the real drivers of the ship are Erik Spoelsta and Heat Culture.
Heat Culture is a very real thing; some players are built for it and other players can’t stand the pressure. The playoff run that Miami went on last season is a major reason why the Cavaliers wanted to acquire Max Strus and it’s why the Lakers added Gabe Vincent. Both Cleveland and Los Angeles saw what those guys were doing in Miami and they thought Vincent and Strus would both be good additions for their respective teams.
Starting December with a challenging five-game stretch against Orlando, Miami, Orlando and Boston back-to-back, and Boston again is going to put the Cavaliers to the test in the early part of the campaign. Right now, Cleveland is 11-9 and in eighth place in the Eastern Conference but only four games back of the first-place Celtics. In this five-game stretch, the Cavs will face the first-place team in the East, Boston, the second-place team in the conference, Orlando, and the seventh-place team in the conference, Miami.
As such, this five-game stretch will be a great opportunity for the Cavaliers to see where they stack up in the Eastern Conference this season.