Even as the Milwaukee Bucks again sit atop the Central Division standings, it would be difficult to argue that the division is the same as in years past.
Starting Monday, the Cleveland Cavaliers will face a crucial stretch of games that could help them place higher in the Central Division. First, the Cavaliers host the Chicago Bulls for the second meeting of the season.
The Cavs are 3-3 against divisional opponents, claiming wins over the Detroit Pistons and Bulls while falling to the Bucks and Indiana Pacers. Cleveland finished the 2022-23 season with a 13-3 record against its division rivals, sweeping Chicago and Detroit on its way to a 51-31 overall record and fourth place in the East.
Cleveland will take on its midwestern rivals in five of its next 10 games, including three matchups with Milwaukee. The duo of forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and guard Damian Lillard has pushed the Bucks to second place in the East with statement wins over the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Indiana Pacers have jumped out to a 9-2 divisional record while going 20-11 against Eastern Conference opponents. The Chicago Bulls, who took second place in the division just two seasons ago, are in the fourth spot with an overall record of 19-22. The Cleveland Cavaliers are a half-game ahead of the Pacers for second in the division, both teams well ahead of the Bulls and Detroit Pistons.
Thankfully, the Cavs have found their stride at just the right time.
Cleveland has won its last four games against the Washington Wizards, San Antonio Spurs and Brooklyn Nets. It earned an offensive rating of 122.6 over its last four games. The figure put it on pace with the Celtics and 0.3 behind the Bucks. Its defense, considered one of the league's best during the 2022-23 regular season, helped the Cavs log an NBA-leading defensive rating of 104.1 over their last four matchups.
Cleveland's recent winning streak was highlighted by a 140-point outing in an early-January win over Washington. Cavs guard Donovan Mitchell, forward Max Strus and guard Caris LeVert combined for 67 points in the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse victory. Center Jarrett Allen added 17 points and 19 rebounds.
Still, it may be difficult to counter a Bulls squad on a small hot streak of its own. Chicago has won four of its last five games and six of its last ten. It defeated the San Antonio Spurs in a 122-116 win at the Frost Bank Center on Saturday. Chicago racked up 31 assists in the road victory, marking their third straight game with 31 assists and their seventh game of the season with 30 assists or more.
"I feel like we're getting better," said Bulls head coach Billy Donovan, following the win in San Antonio. "I really do. I think we're playing stylistically, how I'd like to see us play, and how I think the game should be played. We're sharing the ball. It was another night of 30 assists."
Cleveland prevailed in its last game against Chicago despite the absence of Mitchell, forward Evan Mobley and guard Darius Garland. Cleveland finished the win with 28 assists, including eight from two-way guard Craig Porter Jr. On the night, Max Strus scored a team-leading 26 points and dished seven assists in 41 minutes of play. Allen ended the night with a 19-point, 17-rebound double-double while adding seven assists of his own.
Following the win, Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff praised the team effort, commenting "Being in these moments with your back against the wall... and knowing it's not going to be one guy that picks up the slack for everybody". In Cleveland's last ten games without Garland and Mobley before the Paris trip, the Cavs ranked fourth in the NBA in assists per game (30.6). With improved passing and ball movement, the Cavaliers will challenge Chicago's recent team-oriented play.
The Cavs must continue to lean on the team basketball that earned them their December victory in the United Center while taking away the strengths of some of Chicago's more prominent scorers when they take to their home floor on Monday.
Cleveland will face Chicago at 7 p.m. EST on Monday in Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. The game will be broadcast on Bally Sports Ohio.