Cavaliers’ decision to rest stars against Heat could have big impact on playoff race

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver won’t like it, but the Cleveland Cavaliers are at it again, choosing to give their best players, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, the night off in a game at the Miami Heat on Monday. The contest isn’t slated for a national TV audience, unlike a notorious episode last month, but it could make a big impact on the Eastern Conference playoff race.

The Cavs cited a lingering knee injury for Irving and listed James with a calf issue, while another major contributor, Tristan Thompson is out for a fourth straight game with a thumb injury. The other member of Cleveland’s “Big Three,” Kevin Love, played and scored 25 points before fouling out of an eventual 124-121 loss in overtime.

James and Irving have a case to make regarding a need for rest, given that they played just under 47 minutes and 45 minutes, respectively, in a 126-125 overtime loss Sunday to the Hawks. That defeat featured the stunning loss of a 26-point, fourth-quarter lead for the Cavs, this after a 114-100 loss to Atlanta on Friday in which the Hawks rested most of their own starters.

Those two defeats dropped the Cavs into a tie with the Celtics for first place in the East, and given that Cleveland is now 0-7 this season without James, it appears that the team could be conceding the coneference to Boston. With the Celtics’ win over Brooklyn in Boston, the Celtics now enjoy a one-game lead for the East’s top seed over Cleveland.

“Obviously, the last 10 games we’ve been 5-5,” James said after Sunday’s loss. ” … The best thing for our team is we want to go down the stretch, be healthy and put a game plan together.”

The game in Miami arguably meant much more to the 40-41 Heat, who are vying with the 40-41 Bulls and 41-40 Pacers for the final two playoff spots in the East. The Cavs resting their two top players at the Heat could make the difference in either the former team of Dwyane Wade — a close friend and former teammate of James’s — making the postseason, or his current squad in Chicago.

There is also the possibility that, with Miami overcoming an 11-30 start by catching fire in the second half of the season, the Cavs might actually prefer not to have the top spot, just in case the surging Heat make their way into the No. 8 seed. In addition, Cleveland went 0-4 this season against Chicago, which started Monday in the eighth spot.

In any event, the news of James and Irving sitting out the game likely won’t please Silver, who, in a memo sent to all 30 teams last month, said that resting players has “become an extremely significant issue for our league.” His memo came after two straight weeks in which first the Warriors, then the Cavs, deprived fans of seeing their biggest stars in nationally televised games.

Eyebrows may or may not have been raised in the commissioner’s office, but they certainly were elsewhere, in the wake of reports that James, Thompson and teammate J.R. Smith were spotted at a Miami nightclub late on Sunday night. That could have been an effective way to blow off some steam, following the frustrating loss to the Hawks in Atlanta, but it might not have been the most restful activity.

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