Did Potential Celtics Playoff Foe Intentionally Reject No. 3 Seed?

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The Boston Celtics rewarded themselves with the leeway of resting their starting five for the final eight quarters of their regular season, but that position didn’t exist for anyone else in the Eastern Conference.

Boston’s No. 1 seed, home-court playoff advantage and healthy go-to rotation were all edges working in favor of the Celtics on Sunday. So while rookie Jordan Walsh made his debut NBA start alongside four other reserve unit cast members, the Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks and Orlando Magic underwent a last-minute roller coaster before submitting their official records. None, however, finished more questionably than the Cleveland Cavs.

Playoff-bound, the Cavaliers had an opportunity to clinch the No. 3 seed in the conference, matched up against the less-talented, out-of-reach-for-contention Charlotte Hornets. Hypothetically, that would’ve booked Cleveland for a first-round playoff battle with the Indiana Pacers. Instead, the Cavaliers took a knee in the fourth quarter, scoring just 14 points in the frame on 4-of-15 shooting en route to a 120-110 loss to the Hornets.

This wasn’t an instance where Charlotte was inspired to end its 20-61 season on a winning note transitioning to the offseason. Cleveland let go of the rope and allowed the Hornets to tug, thus dropping the Cavaliers to the fourth seed, punching their ticket for a first-round series with the Magic — far from a walk-in-the-park opponent, at least for Cleveland.

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Here’s a look at the set-in-stone first-round series matchups in the East:
— Boston Celtics vs. No. 8 seed (TBD after play-in tournament)
— New York Knicks vs. Philadelphia 76ers or Miami Heat
— Milwaukee Bucks vs. Indiana Pacers
— Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Orlando Magic

Orlando, finishing 5-5 through its last 10 games entering the playoffs, ranked outside the league’s top 15 in points (109.5), field goal percentage (46.8%) and rebounds (40.4) within that final stretch. But even so, the Magic have still gone head-to-head with the Cavaliers, holding an 11-9 record in the last 20 contests with Cleveland, including a 2-2 split this season. In other words, the Cavaliers went out of their way to book themselves a flip-of-the-coin opponent to begin their playoff run.

“Once we sat our guys at the end of the third quarter, and they had the mindset that they weren’t going to go back in, I didn’t wanna take any risk in putting them back in the game,” Cleveland head coach J.K. Bickerstaff told reporters, per team-provided video. “… I thought the safety of our guys was the most important thing and when they were shut off, I didn’t wanna have to go ramp them back up.”

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The Hornets sent the Cavaliers packing by going on an 18-2 run in the final 7:12 minutes of the game, and although it didn’t jeopardize Cleveland’s playoff chances one bit, it did add pressure. It’s already a head-scratching move to punt on the third seed, especially with no clear initiative, so doing so amplifies the expectations for the Cavaliers to perform in Round 1.

And that’s regardless of whether or not Bickerstaff and Cleveland purposely declined the No. 3 seed.

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