The one team the Cleveland Cavaliers must avoid in the first round of the playoffs

Cleveland Cavaliers v Miami Heat
Cleveland Cavaliers v Miami Heat / Rich Storry/GettyImages

Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers made the playoffs for the first time since 2018, their last of four consecutive NBA Finals matchups against the Golden State Warriors.

The Cavs only stuck around briefly in the 2023 NBA Playoffs, falling to the New York Knicks in five games in Round One. Despite several injuries and different starting lineups this year, the Cavs are hanging around in the top three of the Eastern Conference standings alongside the Bucks and Celtics. Farther down the standings, Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat are lurking, ready to make another run at the Finals.

Come mid-to-late- March, Eric Spolstra usually starts to push all the right buttons and the Heat begin rounding into form. Jimmy Butler transforms from “Regular Season Jimmy” into “Playoff Jimmy.” The Bucks and Celtics both have firsthand experience of what it’s like going against this version of the Heat. Evan Mobley, Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell and the Cavaliers intend on making a deep run in the postseason in 2024, but to do that they must avoid the sleeping giant in Miami.

The regular season series between the Heat and Cavaliers is tied 1-1 with each team winning on the other’s home court. To close out the series, Miami and Cleveland will play each other twice in five days. First, they’ll collide at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in downtown Cleveland on March 20 before squaring off at the Kaseya Center down in Miami four days later. Between those two games, the Heat will host the New Orleans Pelicans while the Cavs will visit the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 22.

New Orleans and Minnesota are both fighting for playoff positioning in the competitive Western Conference, so neither of those games will be easy for the Cavaliers or the Heat. The T-Wolves haven’t been the same team since they lost Karl-Anthony Towns to a meniscus injury, while the Pelicans appear to be finding their stride at the right time. So the Cavs have a slight advantage because of what might be an easier matchup going against the Wolves in Minnesota. Miami will be amid a four-game homestand (NO, CLE, GS, POR). The game in Miami on March 24 will mark the first of a back-to-back for the Cavs as they’ll host the Charlotte Hornets on March 25.

Coincidentally, each of Mimai's three trips to the Eastern Conference Finals since 2020 have all been against the league-leading Boston Celtics. Miami is 2-1 in those three ECF appearances as they beat the Celtics in 2020 down in the Orlando bubble and 2023, although Boston got the better of Miami in 2022. Five combined trips to the conference finals and NBA Finals speak to just how dangerous of a team the Heat are. There’s no other team in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference standings with their playoff resume and pedigree.

Both Cleveland and Miami have found key contributors this year

Although Cleveland wants to avoid Miami, a key offseason acquisition could offer them insight into Miami’s gameplay: from 2020-2023, Max Strus played for the Heat and got to experience the three ECF and two Finals runs. Spacing the floor and adding shooters to capitalize on the Garland-Mitchell duo and to keep the Cavs from stalling out in the playoffs for the second consecutive season was a top priority for the Cleveland over the offseason as they went out and added Ty Jerome (who’s out with an injury), Georges Niang, and Strus.

Strus has been inserted into the starting lineup and it’s paid dividends for the Cavs as he’s averaging roughly 12 points per game and has been a floor spacer. Plus, his knowledge of Miami’s gameplay could swing a series. His historic buzzer beater to beat the Dallas Mavericks back in February was one of the best plays of the Cavs season. Still, Strus’ insider knowledge and late-game heroics wouldn’t be enough to tip the scales in Cleveland’s favor in a potential series against the Heat on its own.

Towards the end of January, the Heat traded with the Charlotte Hornets to acquire point guard Terry Rozier in exchange for guard Kyle Lowry and a protected 2027 first-round pick. It took Rozier a little time to get acquainted with the Heat’s system, but he’s settled in quite nicely and is averaging 15 points per game as a member of the Miami Heat. Miami thought they had gotten the point guard position correct with Kyle Lowry, but Rozier gives them a lot more juice at this point in his career.

The Cavaliers experienced what it’s like to be upset early after last year. They don’t want a repeat of that, but the Heat are the team with the best chance to make that happen. The Heat don’t care who they play in the first round, they just want to avoid the Play-In for the second consecutive season. The Heat are within five games of fourth place in the East, and that is a haunting proposition for Cleveland. A first-round matchup against the Heat would not be favorable for the Cavs, whereas facing the Orlando Magic or Indiana Pacers would be a better matchup for the Cavaliers.

How the Cavaliers can overcome the Heat

Should Cleveland confront a dangerous Heat team, Mitchell and the combination of Mobley and Allen will need to offset “Playoff Jimmy” and Adebayo. Additionally, Garland and Cleveland's role players will have to step up and offset what Miami can roll out with the likes of Duncan Robinson, Rozier, Herro, Jaime Jaquez, Jr., and Caleb Martin. The Cavs might miss Lamar Stevens' gritty defense at times if they face Miami. The Cavs don’t need Dean Wade to go crazy and outscore the Heat 20-17 like he did against the Celtics on March 5, but they do need him to provide offense consistently.

Surprisingly, Isaac Okoro has been providing offense for the Cavs whether he’s been in the starting lineup or coming off the bench. From March 1 to March 6, Okoro scored at least 10 points including 16 against the Celtics on March 5. He followed that up with 17 against Atlanta on March 6.

In the game against the Celtics, Georges Niang was the one who hit the game-tying three-pointer to knot things up at 99. In the win against New Orleans on March 13, Niang provided 16 points. He’s had a few tough games since the calendar flipped to March, but Niang has continued to shoot the ball and would be a great asset if the Cavs face the Heat in the playoffs this season. Even though the Cavs don’t want to play the Heat, they’re better equipped for a playoff run this season.

Based on how the Eastern Conference playoff picture is shaping up, a Heat-versus-Cavaliers series would most likely happen in the first round if it happened. The Cavs would have homecourt advantage in this series, but would that scare the Heat? Not in the slightest! If the Cleveland Cavaliers want to make a deep playoff run, they must avoid the Miami Heat in the playoffs. 

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