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NBA Daily: Pacers Put Cavs In The Danger Zone

With the red-hot Pacers overtaking the Cavaliers for third in the East, Cleveland has entered the danger zone, writes Buddy Grizzard.

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If the playoffs started today, the Cleveland Cavaliers would face the Washington Wizards in a four-five matchup while the Indiana Pacers would match up against the less-experienced Philadelphia 76ers as the third seed. There are still a few weeks to go to determine the actual playoff seedings, but let this serve as notice that the Cavaliers have entered the danger zone.

The Cavaliers are just 4-6 since the All-Star break, owing largely to a litany of injuries to key players. The Pacers are 20-9 after a five-game losing streak that coincided with a knee injury to leading scorer Victor Oladipo.

The Pacers made a statement with Sunday’s 99-97 win over the Boston Celtics, announcing itself as a team that belongs in the East’s top four seeds, not just a young team that’s happy to be there. One day later, Oladipo was characteristically low-key about the win in Boston.

“Definitely a big win, but there’s a lot of stuff we need to get better at,” Oladipo told reporters after Monday’s practice. “We need to sharpen up some stuff.”

Pacers center Myles Turner acknowledged that his team is proud of what it has accomplished so far, but isn’t surprised to be in position for home-court advantage.

“[We’re] very excited to be in this position,” said Turner. “We didn’t expect anything less. We actually expected more.”

Meanwhile, it was a sedate LeBron James who faced reporters Sunday after consecutive road losses to the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers. The injury woes were very much on his mind.

“You want to get the most from whoever is playing,” said James. “Sometimes you just can’t overcome this many injuries that we have. We have pretty much five guys out of our top nine or top ten out of the rotation or not playing because of injuries. It’s next man up, but sometimes you just fall short.”

Former Laker and current Cavaliers guard Jordan Clarkson said he has relished the experience of playing with James even though the team is struggling to meet expectations.

“It’s been awesome,” said Clarkson. “He creates shots for us, gets us going. [He’s an] unselfish superstar, so that’s definitely been cool.”

Forward Larry Nance Jr., who accompanied Clarkson in the trade that sent them from the Lakers to Cleveland, couldn’t help throwing a little shade at his old team.

“It’s really cool getting to go back home and play with a contending team,” said Nance Jr.

But are the Cavaliers really contenders? With the Pacers, Celtics, and Toronto Raptors excelling in the East and injuries preventing the revamped Cavaliers from gelling as a unit, it’s hard to say how prepared this team can be for the rigors of the playoffs.

Asked if he can tell if the Cavaliers are moving in the right direction despite the injuries, James made his most ominous pronouncement.

“You don’t know,” he said.

And that’s the danger zone the Cavaliers have entered. Since losing point guard John Wall to knee surgery, the Wizards have been a surprising 12-7. Wall could be back in time for the playoffs and the veteran Wizards would be a less-than-ideal opponent in the first round, especially if the top-seed Raptors await in the second round. Cleveland is only a half game out of third, but lead the eighth-seed HEAT by a mere three games.

How Cleveland finishes the current six-game road trip will be key, since tough match-ups at home against the Bucks and Raptors await. The Cavs will face the league-worst Suns tonight before traveling to Portland then completing the road swing in Chicago on Saturday. Following the April 3 visit from the Raptors, Cleveland’s schedule is relatively light with six of the final 11 games coming against teams currently out of the playoff picture.

However the Cavaliers can’t afford to take anyone lightly. The Wizards trail Cleveland by only half a game while the 76ers are just a game behind Washington. There’s almost no chance of Cleveland missing the postseason with the Pistons and Hornets languishing just outside the playoff picture. But a finish anywhere from the third to the eighth seed could happen with those teams currently separated by a mere 3.5 games. There won’t be a moment to relax for the Cavaliers from now until playoff seeds are finalized.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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